Body and Soul [DVD]
Director : Oscar Micheaux
Screenplay : Oscar Micheaux
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1925
Stars : Paul Robeson (Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins / Sylvester), Mercedes Gilbert (Isabelle), Julia Theresa Russell (Martha Jane), Lawrence Chenault (Yello-Curley Hinds), Marshall Rogers (Speakeasy proprietor), Lillian Johnson (Sis Caline), Madame Robinson (Sis Lucy), Chester A. Alexander (Deacon Simpkins), Walter Cornick (Brother Amos)
One cannot speak of race movies--those films made independently by black filmmakers specifically for black audiences in the pre-World War II era (a time before Hollywood learned to cash in on race and ethnicity)--without mentioning the name of Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux helped pioneer independent black cinema by writing and directing his own films for his own production company, which functioned completely outside the mainstream U.S. film industry (he often hand-distributed the prints to the various theaters that would play all-black films).
Some historians have argued that Micheaux was primarily a brilliant businessman, a creative and tenacious entrepreneur who saw a substantial audience being ignored by the Hollywood studios and tapped into their desires to see themselves reflected on the silver screen. Others have argued that his importance lies in the way he reimagined the way race could be portrayed on screen. He elevated African American imagery by resisting and, at times, directly contradicting and even mocking the stereotypes and caricatures of blacks that dominated American culture.
I like to think of Micheaux first and foremost as a filmmaker. Any man who independently directed more than 40 films over three decades had clearly given his heart and soul to cinema and deserves to be thought of as such. Some of his films, especially the ones made after his transition to synchronized sound, are rough and at times sloppy, bearing all the hallmarks of low budgets and hasty production schedules that don’t allow for reshoots. Yet, considering the conditions under which he was working and the limited means he had at his disposal, many of his films are revelatory as both cinema and social commentary.
The son of former slaves, Micheaux was greatly influenced by the writings of Booker T. Washington and wanted nothing more than to change the image of blacks in American culture. In the cinema, he saw a powerful means to do so. For example, Body and Soul, one of only four of Micheaux’s silent films that are still in known existence, shows Micheaux to be a committed oppositional filmmaker with a gift for complex narrative (he was first a writer and novelist, and it shows in his literary plots and love of melodrama).
The story concerns an escaped convict who hides out in a small town as a preacher, using the pulpit as a façade to hide his criminality. The preacher is played by Paul Robeson, a noted singer, stage actor, and professional athlete who was making his screen debut. Robeson has a natural screen presence, and he imbues the two-faced Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins with a simultaneous menace and charm that explains why he could be so appealing to his congregation. At the same time, Robeson plays Rev. Jenkins’ good-hearted brother Sylvester, who represents a counterbalance to the reverend’s duplicity. Caught in the middle are Sis’ Martha Jane (Julia Theresa Russell), a decent, but all too trusting woman who admires the reverend and wants nothing more than for her young daughter, Isabelle (Mercedes Gilbert), to marry him.
Micheaux’s willingness to tackle organized religion head on, suggesting that it could and does cover up corruption and vice, evinces a kind of social bravery that many in the Hollywood studio system lacked. Hollywood directors like Cecil B. DeMille were certainly wallowing in depraved themes in the 1920s, but often with tacked-on codas and sudden last-reel reversals that stank of hypocrisy. Micheaux’s film, however technically inferior to major studio product, maintains the courage of its own convictions.
But, even on that front, Body and Soul holds up well. Micheaux’s compositions tend to be fairly simple and his editing sparse, but he frequently surprises with powerful imagery that suggests an artist’s vision. Take, for example, the flashback scene in which Rev. Jenkins and Isabelle take refuge together in a deserted farmhouse during a torrential storm. The violence that takes place is never shown on screen (it is discretely covered over by an intertitle that reads “A half hour later”), but we feel it through a series of shots of the reverend’s shoes and one shot of his leering face juxtaposed with Isabella’s terrified reactions. The suspense and feelings of helplessness that Micheaux builds in this scene are quite intense, and the expressiveness of the lighting and shadows bring to mind the German Expressionist films of the same period.
While much of the story in Body and Soul is pure melodrama, the characters are rich and complex. Micheaux drops small hints about their differences, particularly in terms of generational gaps (while Sis’ Martha Jane allows blind devotion to stand in for her lack of critical thought, Isabelle is clearly of a studied mind). In an era when black faces on the movie screen were always either servants or entertainers, Micheaux’s wide range of black characters--good and bad, honest and deceitful, strong and weak, cunning and naïve--shows that he was not interested in simplified uplift, but rather in the cinematic humanizing of a historically marginalized people.
|Body and Soul Criterion Collection DVD|
|Body and Soul isavailable exclusively as part of the box set “Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist,” which also includes Borderline (1930), The Emperor Jones (1933), Sanders of the River (1935), Jericho (1937), The Proud Valley (1940), and Native Land (1942), as well as the Oscar-winning short documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979). The box also includes an insert booklet featuring an excerpt from Paul Robeson’s Here I Stand, new essays by Clement Alexander Price, Hilton Als, Charles Burnett, Ian Christie, Deborah Willis, and Charles Musser, a reprinted article by Harlem Renaissance writer Geraldyn Dismond, and a note from Pete Seeger.|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|SRP||$99.95 (box set)|
|Release Date||February 13, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Body and Soul was restored several years ago by George Eastman House, and Criterion’s new high-definition transfer was taken from a duplicate negative of that restoration. For a low-budget, independent race film produced in 1925, it looks nothing short of outstanding. While there are unavoidable signs of age-related damage in the form of specks and occasional lines, the image is incredibly clean for a film that is more than 80 years old. The contrast looks fantastic, which brings out all the minute details in the image. Plus, unlike other recent Criterion releases of films in the Academy aspect ratio, Body and Soul is not windowboxed (nor are any of the films in the box set). The film plays with a score by jazz musician Wycliffe Gordon that was first commissioned for the restored film’s premiere at the 2000 New York Film Festival. The version of Gordon’s score included on this disc, which is presented in Dolby Digital two-channel stereo, was recorded live during a screening in Savannah, Georgia, and it sounds fantastic. The music is lively and multifaceted, bringing in strains of blues, jazz, soul, and choral music in a way that truly marries sound and image.|
|The only supplement on this disc is a screen-specific audio commentary by Pearl Bowser, co-author of Writing Himself Into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences. Bowser’s comments are insightful, as she alternates between explicating various aspects of what we see on screen with crucial historical and cultural information about Micheaux and race films in general. Her extensive research provides a great amount of detail about the film’s production, reception, and lasting importance.|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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