The Belcourt Theatre's exceptional "Visions of the South" series concludes in spectacular fashion 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 5, with Oscar Micheaux's intense, bleak and powerful 1925 silent epic Body and Soul. The screening would be noteworthy just for the element of its original score — composed by Roy "Futureman" Wooten and arranger Gil Fray, to be performed live by Futureman & the Black Mozart Experience. But it also gives viewers a rare big-screen encounter with two controversial and much-discussed figures whose stature has grown over the decades.
One is the movie's star, the great actor and singer Paul Robeson, in his first film role. The other, far less known, is Micheaux, the so-called king of "race" films and a pioneer in American independent cinema. An early black filmmaker whose work is in some cases impossible to find, Micheaux made 44 movies from 1919 to 1948 in a wealth of genres, from dramas and gangster productions to westerns, musicals, religious fare and mysteries.
Body and Soul, the 11th work Micheaux also wrote and produced, would be deemed complex even by contemporary standards. For an early 20th century piece, however, aimed at an audience most movie studios dismissed as incapable of appreciating or understanding any hint of cinematic sophistication, it was revolutionary. Body and Soul reflected Micheaux's insistence that black audiences deserved, and demanded, just as much thematic variety and quality as any other.
This emphasis on diversity mirrored Micheaux's background. Before becoming a director, he'd been a marketer, Pullman porter, homesteader and novelist. Many of the people he encountered and things he experienced were later recycled into his movies, as well as the expertise gleaned from past occupations.
Micheaux saw his role as a spokesperson and cinematic agitator for an overlooked, oppressed constituency. While he never ignored nor omitted the entertainment component, his films seldom shied away from the ugly realities of racism, poverty and injustice that then defined the lives of so many African Americans. Body and Soul explores such issues as the psychological impact of living a double life and a lie, the overpowering (and in his view, extremely negative) role ministers enjoy within the black community, sibling rivalry, and the difference between love and obsession.
The tale centers around escaped prisoner Isaiah T. Jenkins (Robeson). On the run in all-black Tatesville, Ga., Jenkins and fellow escapee Yello-Curley Hinds (Lawrence Chenault) craft a scheme built around Jenkins masquerading as a preacher. They're going to bleed the town dry, thanks to the "Rev's" appeals for support. But things start going wrong after Jenkins falls in love with Isabelle Perkins (Mercedes Gilbert), who actually already loves Sylvester — the phony minister's twin brother, long estranged. In the brothers' case, absence definitely has not made the heart grow fonder.
Isaiah's schemes, as well as the love triangle and other complications, take Body and Soul in intriguing (if admittedly melodramatic) directions. There's a dream sequence, exhibitions of ugly and scandalous conduct, and a conclusion cynics will find both pat and unsatisfying. But Micheaux, whose later films would offer less upbeat and more searing outcomes, didn't take that route with Body and Soul. Even so, it is quite clear that the posturing, preening and evil Rev. Jenkins symbolizes a recurring fixture in Micheaux's films: the hypocrite and phony who sells out the masses who put their faith and trust in him.
Though Robeson is very much a raw, inexperienced actor figuring his way out on a film set, the charisma and physical presence that would make him a theatrical and operatic star are very evident, even in this silent setting. While you can't hear him doing the sermons that awe and fascinate his congregation, he definitely nails the gestures and command of the pulpit required for such a commanding figure. Yet he's no less striking as the saintly Sylvester. Robeson's performance is so captivating and dominating that it's easy to overlook others in the cast such as Gilbert and Chenault, as well as Julia Theresa Russell, who's equally compelling portraying Isabelle's deceptively naive but strong mother Martha Jane.
When he initially applied to show Body and Soul, Micheaux was denied an exhibition license from the Motion Picture Commission of New York State. He had to re-edit it twice and cut it from nine to five reels. Sadly, only the five-reel version has survived; his director's cut remains lost — as do all but three of the 26 silent films he is said to have made. What survives may not encompass the body of his contribution to American arts and culture, but it certainly captures the soul.