Body and Soul Film Details
Overview: A minister is malevolent and sinister behind his righteous facade. He consorts with, and later extorts from, the owner of a gambling house, and betrays an honest girl, eventually driving …
Review: In a sense, “Body and Soul” is considerably different than director Oscar Micheaux’s two earlier surviving silent films, “Within Our Gates” and “The Symbol of the Unconquered” (both 1920). The narrative doesn’t so much explicitly tackle grand national issues of racism, including lynching and the KKK, educational uplift in the Booker T. Washington tradition, “passing” or interracial relations as those two do, but rather focuses on the more intimate subject matter of a conman minister, although there is surely a commentary there on guarding against susceptibility to such abuses of church. Others have mentioned, as with much of Micheaux’s oeuvre, that the story may be drawn from his own experiences–in this case with his preacher father-in-law allegedly having stolen money from him, or that it drew from newspaper stories about unscrupulous pastors of black churches. Regardless, hypocritical ministers were a recurrent character in his films, including the self-hating Ned in “Within Our Gates” who belittles himself to become ingratiated with white men. In another sense, though, “Body and Soul” is quite similar to those other two films by engaging critically with other texts. Indispensable to this understanding is Charles Musser’s essay, “To Redream the Dream of White Playwrights: Reappropriation and Resistance in Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul.” While others have pointed out how “Within Our Gates” and “The Symbol of the Unconquered” may be viewed as rebuttals to D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), having studied that widely-accessible film myself, I’m sure I would’ve seen the parallels regardless. Not so much in the case of the texts that “Body and Soul” is argued to be reworking. This is because, as with the film’s star Paul Robeson, in his screen debut, those sources are from the 1920s stage. As with Griffith’s film, however, the three plays all depict black character experiences as created by white authors, and the first great African-American filmmaker, Micheaux found fault in those depictions. The intriguing difference in the texts Micheaux’s films interact with is that with “The Birth of a Nation,” the ground for debate, in addition to cinematic techniques, was historical and the real world, albeit as through the lens of melodrama: Griffith’s perversion of the history of slavery and Reconstruction and Micheaux’s work amid the Great Migration and the 1919 Chicago race riot, for instance. Although still melodrama, “Body and Soul” is reacting to plays more in the mode of fantasy. This provided an opportunity for Micheaux to better get at the root of such entertainment, theatrical and cinematic, as forms of illusion–of dreams and nightmares. As Musser outlines, the plays are Nan Bagby Stephens’s “Roseanne” and two, “The Emperor Jones” and “All God’s Chillun’ Got Wings,” by Eugene O’Neill. All starred Robeson, as does “Body and Soul.” So brilliant is this casting and intertextuality that the equivalent almost would’ve been had Micheaux managed to cast Lillian Gish in his prior films. As Musser suggests, Robeson was smart enough to realize “a joke,” as actually reads one intertitle, of Micheaux casting him as the conman in this reversal of plays he starred in, which may be why he’s reported to have neglected mentioning in later years his screen debut and only film where he was directed by an African American. Ironically, instead, citing the 1933 adaptation of “The Emperor Jones” as the beginning of his movie stardom. Even some contemporary reviewers considered the three plays racially obscene, including O’Neill’s penchant for racial slurs. Indeed, the character Isabelle condemns her mother’s use of such a word in Micheaux’s film. Additionally, as Robeson plays dual roles here, the good and the bad twins, Musser writes about how Robeson was something of a real-life doppelgänger to fellow black stage actor Charles Gilpin, who preceded Robeson in starring in the very same plays. Supposedly, Robeson was a more compliant actor than Gilpin, who would alter parts of the plays, including dropping the derogatory language. On the other hand, Robeson, as Musser points out, added a greater charismatic and sexual dimension to his parts, which plays well in “Body and Soul” where the older women of the congregation support the minister’s lavish lifestyle as if out of misplaced sexual desire. In the case of Isabelle’s mother, Martha Jane, this adds an incestuous quality–in line with similar subject matter in “Within Our Gates”–when the patriarchal minister rapes Isabelle–only compounding Martha Jane’s guilt and subsequent awakening. Even if the casting is also a rebuke of Robeson’s theatrical career and public statements, it doesn’t diminish the accomplishment here of a terrific performance. Not only an actor already doubled by playing a conman (or actor) who performs as preacher, he’s also doubled as two characters. More than a common opportunity for stars to play off their screen personas with opposing personalities, or to reflexively recall the doubled nature of cinema itself as a mass-produced recording, in this case it also alludes to W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness, of African Americans’ “soul” in conflict with seeing their body through the eyes of a white-supremacist society. The criticism of the plays goes beyond words, to their message and overall representation of African Americans. This is Robeson’s minister, who even after stealing from Martha Jane and raping her daughter–leading to her death–tricks her into turning the other cheek in forgiveness, which he promptly reciprocates by also killing her son, as if putting the lie to a play such as “Roseanne” that ends with the act of forgiveness. It’s also why the film being framed as a dream is effective–placing the nightmare of such theatrical double consciousness in its proper place as a harmful fiction. If it weren’t all a dream, too, as Musser points out, the dual roles would render the entire narrative of the bad brother corrupting the same town where the good brother lives and would presumably expose him illogical. Moreover, J. Ronald Green (in the book “With a Crooked Stick–The Films of Oscar Micheaux”) does a fine job of explaining how the different dresses of Martha Jane clue us into what is dream and what is “reality” in the film. The dream logic also explains away what I would otherwise find some confusing crosscutting (the mother’s initial dosing off edited together with scenes of the drunken preacher entering a home, e.g.) to go along with Micheaux’s characteristically elaborate POV, flashback and dream structures. Nevertheless, there is some fine filmmaking elsewhere, such as the withholding of information until the big flashback as to the relationship between the pastor and the Isabelle, or in the documentary style of the Atlanta scenes and the judicious cutting of the rape scene. Although Micheaux’s prior films were sometimes too depressingly realistic, whether depicting “passing” and racial discrimination, lynching, or the KKK, along with attempted incestuous rape, the inevitable hopeful messages of uplift in these race films was always something of an aspirational dream. When Martha Jane awakens in “Body and Soul,” then, she’s only left a nightmare for a dream, Robeson’s duplicitous minister for his good race man twin, the black community led astray by church for middle-class aspirations, the death of her daughter’s body in the cinematographic recording of still images for the afterlife of her soul in the dream that is the projection of movies.
Language: None, English
Duration: 102 min
Also known as: Body and Soul,Тело и душа,Corps et âme,En cuerpo y alma,Corpo e Alma