As part of Black History Month 2020, HOME is celebrating the first screen appearance of Paul Robeson with a showing the film Body and Soul. Dr Monika Kukolova, Lecturer in Film Studies, University of Salford has written this introduction.
Body and Soul (1925), written, directed and produced by one of the most prolific filmmakers of early American cinema, Oscar Micheaux, is one of the few preserved films from the genre of ‘race movies’ made for Black audiences in the first half of the 20th century. Although ‘race movies’ targeted Black cinema-goers with their often all-black cast, they rarely openly explored the concerns and issues of social injustice faced by these audiences. This was due to several factors. Firstly, ‘race movies’ were made independently (outside Hollywood) and as such their producers had to book cinemas individually, often depending on the discretion of cinema owners. In order to pass that hurdle, films had to appear risk-free and unlikely to inflame any political passions. Secondly, and particularly in the case of Micheaux’s productions, the films displayed a distinct middle-class worldview that celebrated progress through education and self-improvement.
Like in other Micheaux’s films, the plot of Body and Soul revolves around the fate of a young Black woman and the threats to her virtue posed by the men around her. Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell in her only known screen appearance), the only daughter of a devout Christian Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert), has been getting some unwelcome attention from a not-so-holy pastor (Paul Robeson) in the local church. While her mother is overjoyed at the prospect of a preacher son-in-law, Isabelle has her eyes set on the pastor’s twin brother, an inventor (also played by Paul Robeson). The story is simple enough on the surface, yet it carries encoded messages about the anxieties of Black people in segregated America. The lead female character in some sort of peril is a widely used theme in early cinema because it signifies the urge to protect women and their honour. To modern audiences, this will seem like an antiquated idea that pushed women further into submission but the cinema-goers in the first half of the 20th century interpreted this as respect towards womanhood. Black women, however, were commonly excluded from this narrative. By casting Black actresses into such roles, Micheaux communicated to his audiences that not only should Black women be protected, their survival is key to the uplifting of Black communities.
Body and Soul marks the first screen appearance of Paul Robeson, then known as the rising star of Harlem’s theatre stage. The casting of Robeson for his double role in the film is no coincidence: the links between theatre and the young medium of film were quite strong at the time, with many ‘race movies’ featuring Black thespians from Harlem theatre troupes (Evelyn Preer and Dooley Wilson are further examples of this bridge between theatre and early cinema). Furthermore, Body and Soul may have appealed to Robeson as it was a re-interpretation of the three plays about Black American lives written by white playwrights in which he had starred. Despite Robson’s defence of the authors, the plays’ portrayals of Black masculinity were riddled with stereotypes, to say the least. The film touches on a number of these stereotypes but its narrative structure gives them a sense of ambiguity. Micheaux uses the plot device of a dream sequence, which effectively places some of the more tragic aspects of the story into one character’s imagination, thus questioning the realism of racial stereotypes. In an indirect way, Micheaux’s re-imagination of the three source plays pokes fun at Robeson’s willingness to go along with their questionable racial ideology.
Upon its release, Body and Soul received little to no attention from New York critics and it was not embraced by the audiences either, quite possibly due to the film’s open criticism of Black church and clergy. Regardless of the film’s lack of critical or box office success, Robeson went on to build an international career as an actor and a singer, eventually becoming a political activist keen to address class- and race-based social injustices.
Body and Soul is showing at HOME on Tue 19 Oct at 17:15.