Paul Robeson makes his film debut in this Oscar Micheaux melodrama. Robeson plays dual roles: a horrible convict posing as a preacher and his sweet twin brother, a would be inventor. Micheaux’s signature pointed social commentary is on display in this rare surviving film from his silent career.
The multi-talented Paul Robeson is perhaps remembered most for his lovely voice but what would he do in a silent movie? We’re about to find out as Robeson signed on to make a film with pioneering African-American producer-director-writer Oscar Micheaux.
Body and Soul is a story about the abuse of religious faith and how the veneration of minster over family can lead to tragedy. It’s the story of Sister Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert), a devout churchgoer whose hard work has resulted in a nice nest egg. She keeps her money in the family bible, reasoning that no one would be so evil as to steal money from it. Martha dotes on her only child, a daughter named Isabelle. Isabelle is played by Julia Theresa Russell, a schoolteacher with no previous acting experience. (Micheaux ended up marrying her sister.)
After a long day of work, Martha falls asleep and begins to dream. Isaiah Jenkins (Paul Robeson) is a criminal who poses as a minister. He worms his way into Martha’s congregation and is clearly up to no good. The only person who seems to see through him is Isabelle. She has been dating Sylvester (also Paul Robeson), a sweet and gentle aspiring inventor who also happens to be Isaiah’s twin brother. While Martha likes Sylvester, she doesn’t think much of his career (he hasn’t sold a single invention) and she refuses to give them permission to marry.
Later, Martha leaves Isabelle alone with the minister. When she returns, her daughter is visibly agitated and cannot calm down. Martha goes out to buy a treat to cheer Isabelle up but when she returns, her daughter is gone. She later discovers that the money she had been saving is also missing and Isabelle has left a note: she took the money and has run away to Atlanta.
What caused this change in a previously dutiful daughter? What did the minister do to her? Who really stole the money? See Body and Soul to find out.
Micheaux’s films have a refreshing boldness and audacity. Lynching, rape, passing, segregation, interracial romance… Micheaux was not afraid to go there and he used the trappings of melodrama to tell his deeply political stories. His films were often controversial, condemned for what was perceived as trash elements and for failing to include enough uplifting content.
Body and Soul had particular trouble with the censor boards. By the time they were finished with it, Body and Soul had been reduced from nine reels to five. Alas, we don’t have the kind of scene-by-scene analysis that we find with other films. Censor records have been used to reconstruct silent films but not all records were created equal.
Certainly, the portrayal of the church was not appreciated. In her commentary on the film, film historian Pearl Bowser points out that while a young man, Micheaux was cheated out of his money and property by his father-in-law, a minister. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to think that Micheaux’s pointed commentary has a very personal meaning. The dream frame story helped to insulate Micheaux against charges of sacrilege but the film still ran into trouble for its pointed commentary.
Makers of so-called “race films”—motion pictures aimed at a 100% African-American audience—were generally cut off from the same sources of funding enjoyed by their white counterparts. With budgets being tights, producers had to carefully choose where to spend their money. Micheaux tended to spend his on actors, performers with name recognition and experience that would mean getting their performances right on the first take.
Mercedes Gilbert has a warm, maternal presence despite her relative youth (she was only thirty-one at the time, just four years older than her onscreen daughter) and she does an excellent job of anchoring the film with her unabashed goodness. Of course, with the goodness comes a certain level of naivete and the opening of Sister Martha’s eyes in the major character journey of the film. Julia Theresa Russell is, as expected, a bit more raw as Isabelle but still does fine work in a challenging role.
Of course, the main draw of the picture is Paul Robeson, who was enjoying major success as a stage star at the time Body and Soul was released. Casting Robeson in dual roles cleverly allowed him to chew scenery as the villain and also be the sympathetic sweetheart. The trick was used again and again in Hollywood films, most notably by Mary Pickford in Stella Maris. It allowed actors to play their usual typecast character while still dabbling in riskier roles or it let them show off their range and skill with makeup, as was the case with Lon Chaney in Shadows. In Robeson’s case, it allows him to play both the demonic minister and Sylvester the sweetheart, displaying his skills in two extreme roles.
Robeson nearly hit the Hollywood mainstream after Body and Soul when he was invited to join Cecil B. DeMille’s company and star in a picture. Robeson respected DeMille and agreed to the offer but the movie never ended up being made. By then, sound was on the horizon and soon movie audiences would be able to enjoy the same beautiful voice that had enchanted devotees of the stage.
While we’re on the subject of Robeson, let me take a moment to clear up two misconceptions about the film, the first of which concerns him:
First Misconception: Robeson’s performance was significantly more subtle than similar performances of the day.
Source: Paul Robeson: Film Pioneer by Scott Allen Nollen
Okay, first of all, I have extensively covered the production woes of Ben-Hur and The Phantom of the Opera. Neither film had strong direction and it is not surprising that the cast got carried away. As for The Eagle, the picture is so clearly being played tongue-in-cheek that I wonder at any critic who takes it so very seriously. Further, all three films are costume pictures, which generally were acted more broadly than films with a modern setting. (Still are, come to think of it.)
If one wishes to compare performances, one must play fair and maybe cover some movies that DON’T come up first in a Google search for “films of 1925.” Comparing Robeson in Body and Soul to Milton Sills in The Sea Hawk, Richard Barthelmess in The Enchanted Cottage, Harrison Ford in Zander the Great, Lars Hanson in The Scarlet Letter or Rudolph Schildkraut in His People would be a much more accurate barometer of what was considered good acting in mid-1920s Hollywood.
Robeson’s performance compares favorably to those of the leading men listed above and is impressive without the need to bash Hollywood actors. Historians, stop gilding the lily and stop building one performer up by tearing others down. It’s obnoxious.
(This is a particular pet peeve of mine: historians becoming so obsessed with a narrow topic that they ignore the general film world of the era. The result? Stupid assumptions and ridiculous leaps in logic that could have been avoided with a bit of research. I discussed this very thing in my reviews of The Frozen North and Burlesque on Carmen.)
Second Misconception: It is surprising that the rape scene was allowed to remain in the picture.
Actually, no. Micheaux’s direction of the scene is all suggestion, the horror is in the style and not graphic content. It is quite similar to scenes in Son of the Sheik, The Canadian and The Wind, all of which were licensed for exhibition and made by major studios. (United Artists, Paramount and MGM, respectively.)
The Secrets of Micheaux
While Paul Robeson is a key ingredient, this remains Oscar Micheaux’s film. I was fortunate to have been introduced to Micheaux in my first year of silent film viewing. Watching Within Our Gates proved to be the perfect inoculation against any possibility of D.W. Griffith worship and it also exposed as false the infuriating bromides of “no one as offended back then” and “you have to look at context.” In fact, Bowser points out that when Body and Soul was being sliced to ribbons by the censor board, one of the complaints against it was that it would incite African-Americans to riot. Micheaux responded that there was only one movie that would do that: The Birth of a Nation. And, as it turned out, it had just been approved for exhibition by that same censor board.
Micheaux’s films are not what you might call visually sophisticated. In Hollywood, he could have relied on assistants to clean up any issues with continuity but he didn’t have the studio system to rely on and every penny had to be pinched. Retakes were a luxury. What Micheaux did have was a flair for storytelling and memorable characterization combined with the ability to assemble excellent casts to bring his stories to life. His films still pack an emotional wallop and you can’t say that about many indie filmmakers of the era.
The secret to Micheaux’s success comes in two parts. First, he understood which stories could be told well within the confines of his modest budget. This may seem obvious but half the films heckled on Mystery Science Theater 3000 landed themselves in an artistic pickle because their grasp exceeded their reach. Put another way, there’s a reason why first-time indie directors often opt for intimate dramas and horror.
Micheaux’s decision to feature modern stories dealing with social and political issues meant that his pictures could come in on time and in budget. True, he sacrificed reshoots in the process but, as stated before, he was less interested in technique than he was in harnessing raw emotion. (That being said, his lack of visual sophistication can be a hurdle to people viewing his films for the first time.) Micheaux was highly ambitious but his ambitions were realized through social and emotional issues, not elaborate costumes and special effects.
The second secret to Micheaux’s success is his ability to reach into the hearts of his viewers. Despite his low budget, despite his technical issues, he succeeds in playing our heartstrings. This is truly a case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.
Body and Soul is a rare chance to see Paul Robeson and Oscar Micheaux work together and while it has its flaws, it is still an important and touching example of African-American filmmaking of the 1920s. Definitely worth your time.
Where can I see it?
Body and Soul has been released on DVD and Bluray as part of the Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set with a score by DJ Spooky. It is also available on the Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist set from the Criterion Collection, which includes a score by Wycliffe Gordon and a commentary by Pearl Bowser.
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