#499) Body and Soul (1925)

#499) Body and Soul (1925)

OR “Day of the Hunter”

Directed & Written by Oscar Micheaux. Based on his novel.

Class of 2019

The Plot: The town of Tatesville, Georgia has taken a shine to their new minister, Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins (Paul Robeson). Little do they know that Jenkins is a wanted fugitive posing as a reverend to steal their money. Congregation member Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) wishes to pair up Jenkins with her daughter Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell), even though Isabelle is already going steady with Sylvester (Paul Robeson again!). When Isabelle steals her mother’s savings and runs off to Atlanta, Martha Jane tries to track her down. But a well placed flashback is just one of a few twists that Oscar Micheaux has up his sleeve.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives high praise to Oscar Micheaux, “a fearless director with an original, daring and creative vision.” The only superlative for “Body and Soul” specifically goes to Paul Robeson’s “blazing screen presence”.

But Does It Really?: Oscar Micheaux is only the fourth African-American director with multiple films on the NFR (following Gordon Parks, Spike Lee, and Charles Burnett). I enjoyed his first entry “Within Our Gates“, and while “Body and Soul” isn’t quite as impactful, it made me appreciate Micheaux’s directing style. So many directors on this list have one movie as representation of their entire filmography, but “Body and Soul” proves that Micheaux was no one-trick pony. Like “Gates”, “Body” is a nuanced story about African-American lives, but this time with more complexities and no obligation to cater to white audiences. And Micheaux’s doing all of this in 1925! Only a handful of Micheaux’s films have survived, but what remains is a testament to a talented artist’s thirty-year documentation of 20th century African-Americans.

Everybody Gets One: A school teacher in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Julia Teresa Russell got the role of Isabelle through her family connections: her sister Alice was married to Oscar Micheaux. Despite Isabelle’s prominence in the film, Russell was uncredited, and “Body” was her first and only film appearance.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the fact that everyone’s dialogue is written out phonetically in the intertitles (“dat” instead of “that”, etc.). Micheaux doesn’t do this for every character, but when he leans into the stereotypical speech patterns, the intertitles become incredibly difficult to decipher. They’re like those seemingly gibberish sentences that make sense when you say them out loud.

Other notes 

  • This is Paul Robeson’s film debut! Like “Emperor Jones“, Robeson is simultaneously charming and menacing as Reverend Jenkins. My question: Why is he playing Sylvester too? It’s such a small part. And I guess Sylvester is Jenkins’ twin brother? Why establish that if you’re not going to attempt some cool “Parent Trap”-esque split screen effects?
  • The version of “Body and Soul” I viewed was a restored cut available on the Criterion Channel. I bring this up because I really dug the jazz/hip hop soundtrack by Paul Dennis Miller, aka DJ Spooky. Turns out not every silent movie score has to be incessant organ music.
  • Weirdly enough, Mercedes Gilbert is also uncredited for her performance, despite Martha Jane having a decent amount of screentime. While this is her only NFR appearance, Gilbert also co-wrote the Fats Waller song “Stompin’ the Bug”, which appears in “Eraserhead“.
  • Isabelle tells her mother not to use the n word because “it’s vulgar”. Are you listening, White America?
  • Because silent movies are….well, silent, I find myself paying more attention to their cinematography and overall blocking. Sure, “Body and Soul” has the kind of uninteresting staging I associate with silent movies, but Micheaux knows how to spice things up with brisk editing, and effective usage of close-ups and insert shots.
  • Isabelle writes to her mother that she feels she has been “Crushed – body and soul”. Take a Shot! I mean, Title Track!
  • The phonetically spelled-out word Micheaux goes to the most in this movie is “gwine” (presumably pronounced “gwynn”), used instead of “going”. I think.
  • Oscar Micheaux loved his third act flashbacks. While “Gates” gave us a flashback to the main character’s backstory (complete with on-screen lynching), “Body” flashes back to earlier scenes in the movie from Isabelle’s perspective. We would not get that kind of layered storytelling in Hollywood films for at least two decades.
  • Following completion of the film, the New York censor board refused to approve “Body” for screening because of its disrespectful portrayal of a minister. On a tight budget with no money for reshoots, Micheaux filmed a new ending, in which the entire story was a nightmare had by Martha Jane. It’s…definitely a letdown. Especially because that now implies that Martha Jane dreamed of her daughter’s boyfriend being a criminal and rapist. What does that say about her?

Legacy 

  • “Body and Soul” was one of 43 films Oscar Micheaux made in his lifetime, and unfortunately one of only three known to survive in their entirety. The film got a thorough restoration in 2016, and has helped keep Micheaux in the conversation of groundbreaking African-American filmmakers.
  • For the record, “Body and Soul” is no relation to the ’30s jazz standard or the 1947 John Garfield boxing movie.
  • Not much of a legacy for “Body and Soul”, but it should be noted that “Night of the Hunter” tread a lot of the same water as “Body and Soul” 30 years later. Michaeux died four years before “Hunter”, so we’ll never know if his reaction was L-O-V-E or H-A-T-E.

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