Body and Soul (1925)

BFI Southbank, London

                                5 December 2016

We were at BFI Southbank for something a bit special tonight, the world premier of a new soundtrack for the film Body and Soul (Dir. Oscar Micheaux, 1925) composed by rising star on the UK jazz scene Peter Edwards. 

The film follows the exploits of an escaped prisoner (played by Paul Robeson) who seeks refuge in the town of Tatesville, Georgia, by passing himself off as the Rt. Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins. Jenkins gains a loyal following amongst the townsfolk, in particular, the poor but hard-working Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert). When another convict, Yellow-Curley Hinds, discovers Jenkins’ identity, the two hatch plans to swindle Jenkins’ congregation.   Meanwhile, Martha has saved a small nest-egg with which she intends to facilitate her daughter Isabella (Julia Theresa Russell)’s marriage to the Reverend Jenkins.  Isabella however is in love with Sylvester (also played by Robeson) an upright young man but who’s proposal to marry Isabella is rudely rejected by Martha due to his apparent lack of prospects.  When Isabelle denounces Jenkins as drunk and a sinner, her mother leaves her with the Reverend so he can ‘save her soul’.  Shortly after, Martha discovers her nest-egg gone, apparently taken by Isabella who has run away to Atlanta.  Eventually Martha tracks her down to find her living in poverty.  On her deathbed, Isabella reveals that not only did Jenkins take the money, he also raped her but she was forced to flee because she knew her mother would never believe her.  Meanwhile, back in Tatesville, the Reverend Jenkins is preaching up a storm, exalting his congregation to be generous in their contributions when suddenly Martha confronts him with the truth of her daughter’s death.  The congregation turns on Jenkins but he gets away. Reappearing at Martha’s house she apparently forgives him but later he kills a man who tries to prevent his escape.   The next morning, Martha awakens to discover that the preceeding events  were in fact just a dream.  Isabelle reappears alive and well to tell her that Sylvester has suddenly come into money and she now agrees to their marriage.  The film concludes with the newlyweds returning from their honeymoon to Martha Jane’s now very middle class home.

Body and Soul had a somewhat tortuous route to the screen.  Originally a nine-reel picture, when director Micheaux applied for an exhibition license from the Motion Picture Commission of New York, it was denied on the grounds that the film would “tend to incite crime” and was “immoral” and “sacrilegious”. He was forced to re-edit the film twice before the commission gave its approval, reducing the picture to just five reels. As a result, the film does have a somewhat disjointed feel to it and the revelation that most of the events it portrayed were just a dream does come across as something of a cop out. The film also has, even by the standards of 1925, a primitive, almost old-fashioned feel to it with a lot of static camera work.  But there are some nice touches.  The flash-back scene of Jenkins’ attack on Isabella works well, focusing on Isabella’s face, an opening door and Jenkins’ shoes entering and leaving the room.  There are some effective montage sequences particularly Jenkins’ climactic preaching session plus some unexpected but interesting outdoor shots of Atlanta.  The look of the film is all the more impressive given that Micheaux was working on a shoestring budget and apparently could rarely afford the luxury of multiple takes. But it is the storyline of the film which particularly impresses.  Quite apart from having an all black cast (and portraying them as complex characters rather than in the more traditional stereotypical racist depictions, which was a fairly radical move in itself) the film tackles some challenging issues for its time, in particular the appeal of a charismatic religious charlatan and the continued belief in his righteousness even in the face of the strongest evidence to the contrary (in Martha’s case for example even the abuse of her own daughter).  It’s just a pity that Micheaux’s original edit of the film is now considered lost as the surviving version looks to have lost much of his original intent.  As well as the storyline, Micheaux also deserves credit for eliciting a much more naturalistic acting style from virtually his entire cast than was normal for many films of the era.  Absent here were the histrionics and overt theatricality of many mainstream Hollywood productions being made at this time. 

But as well as Micheaux, much of the credit for this naturalistic style must go to the film’s star, Paul Robeson.  Acting in his first and only silent film, and denied the opportunity to use his highly expressive and characteristic voice, Robeson more than made up for this with his portrayal in particular of the sinister Reverend Jenkins, whose manic smile betrayed a menacing personality imbued with the capacity for cruelty, aggression and violent brutality.  Already a star of theatre, Robeson’s move to cinema was largely propelled by his ambitious wife Essie, who negotiated his starring role in Body and Soul with Oscar Micheaux.  Although his role in Body and Soul brought Robeson wider recognition it was of course his portrayal of ‘Joe’ in both the theatre and sound film productions of Show Boat (Dir. James Whale, 1936) that brought him worldwide acclaim. But his gradual political awakening and championing of left wing causes meant that he was destined to run foul of the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s which, along with his worsening health, effectively curtailed his career. 

Amongst the rest of the cast, Mercedes Gilbert as Martha was a little less naturalistic although still convincing as the mother who couldn’t acknowledge the Reverend’s evil character despite the word even of her own daughter.  Gilbert was already a well known stage actress when she made this, her second film.  Although she only made one other film she remained active in theatre and radio until her death in 1952.  Julia Theresa Russell (who was also Oscar Micheaux’s sister in law) as Isabelle was also a believable figure, a fragile individual effectively conveying the anger and confusion over her inability to convince her own mother of the Reverend’s true character.  I can find no further details of her acting career although she subsequently became a teacher, dying in 2000 at the grand old age of 102.

Director Oscar Micheaux (image, left) may not have been the first black American film-maker, but he was the most successful of his era.  He was a pioneer of what became known as ‘race films’, films made by black film-makers, with all-black casts, and for black audiences, reflecting both a segregated industry as well as a segregated society.  But Micheaux was also a pioneer in other respects, in particular by portraying black characters in his films not as obedient servants or ignorant savages but as aspirational individuals with personality, intelligence and dignity.  He was also a pioneer in regularly addressing controversial issues of the time. Born in a rural community in Illinois, Micheaux was the fifth child of former slaves.  After a varied career as stockyard and steel plant worker, shoe shiner, Pullman porter and homesteader he eventually turned to writing.   When a motion picture company sought to film his 1918 novel The Homesteader, Micheaux wanted to be involved in the production but the project never took off.  Instead, he set up his own Micheaux Film & Book Company in Chicago.  Its first project was the production of The Homesteader as a feature film.  Micheaux raised money by selling stock in the company.  Once the film was shot and edited he then travelled the country selling the completed film virtually door-to-door to black cinema owners.  The money he made gave him the funds for his next film project and this became the pattern for his subsequent productions.  Despite this almost hand-to-mouth existence Micheaux avoided bankruptcy, a fate that befell many other black film-makers, and managed to maintain a consistent output throughout the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.  He made his last film, Betrayal, in 1948 which was, incidentally, the first black film production to open in white movie theatres.  After his death in 1951, Micheaux was largely forgotten until his work was rediscovered in the 1980s.  By that time less than 15 of his almost 50 feature films had survived, including only two silent films. But he is now recognised as a pioneer of independent black American cinema, serving as a role model for later black film-makers such as Spike Lee and Mario Van Peebles. 

Lastly, but by no means least, tonight’s screening was accompanied by a newly composed soundtrack by Peter Edwards.  The soundtrack was performed by Peter Edwards himself on piano along with other members of the Nu Civilisation Orchestra Ensemble on bass and drums.  This superbly composed jazz-based score served to compliment the film beautifully, perfectly catching the Reverend Jenkins’ laid-back tone as he illicitly drank and gambled amongst his criminal friends but then underscoring his sinister intent, particularly when threatening Isabella.  And the accompaniment to the Reverend’s  climactic “Dry Bones in the Valley” sermonising rises to such an authentic fever pitch, you can almost hear Robeson’s voice booming out over his congregation.  This was a great evening’s music, which went down so well with a highly appreciative audience, complemented by a nice encore.  As well as proving a superb film soundtrack, I think that this score would work equally well as a stand-alone album.  I for one would buy it. 

( NB  Body and Soul is available on DVD/BluRay in the Pioneers of African-American Cinema compilation box set from Kino Lorber/BFI, albeit without the Peter Edwards score.  It can also be viewed on-line in a number of different length versions.)