March 9, 2019
Body and Soul – U.S., 1925
Sometimes a movie seems more timely and relevant simply because you chose to watch it at precisely the right moment. How else would you explain the pertinence I attached to Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 drama Body and Soul? Had I watched it a mere five years earlier, I doubt I would have seen in it a reflection of our current troubled times. Seen today however, it is nearly impossible for it not to be viewed as a harbinger of things to come, particularly because we have not heeded its warning, and the costs have been catastrophic.
Body and Soul’s lead character is a man who goes by the moniker Reverend Isiaah T. Jenkins. I say goes by because we learn in the film’s opening moments that a convict has escaped from jail and assumed that identity, a fact that apparently has not traveled to the small town of Tatesville. It is there that the story takes shape, there where we find that the fake preacher has set up shop, and there where we witness the esteem with which he is held. Interestingly, the role is played by the great Paul Robeson, a Broadway legend with such a golden voice that I’m guessing he could only play villains in silent movies.
Towards the beginning of the film, Micheaux, who also wrote the screenplay, makes an unusual choice: He elects not to show us just why Jenkins would acquire such a devoted following. Instead, the first glimpse we get of him, he’s frequenting a bar, well on his way to getting so drunk that his attempts to walk straight end with him wobbling from side to side and then veering so sharply to one side that he is momentarily off-screen. Before this, however, we watch him blackmail a local bartender into giving him both free drinks and a financial donation. His pitch: He’s thinking of delivering a sermon on the evils of alcohol.
Soon, we’re introduced to the other characters central to the film: Isabelle (Julia Teresa Russell and her mother, Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert). Isabelle has her heart set on marrying a man named Sylvester (also played by Robeson), while her mother will consent to her marrying no one but Mr. Jenkins. In fact, when she is asked to bless their union, Martha lets fly that most insulting of words to an African-American. Her intent: to emasculate the man. What a change there is when the preacher arrives. Her face aglow, her eyes wide with awe, she looks as one often does in the presence of one’s spiritual hero, especially if he is associated with one’s religious awakening or the act of being saved.
In his review of Leon Morin, Priest, Roger Ebert wondered why being a priest gave one the right to meet with women privately or why a woman would feel safe alone with a man simply because he was a priest. The same could be asked here, just as variations of this question could be asked regarding producers, directors, and celebrities. I don’t claim to have an answer to this question, but I believe it lies somewhere in our innate need to trust that there is someone in this world above reproach, someone with a comprehension of something beyond our present understanding, and someone whose motivations are purely benevolent. We want such people to exist, and perhaps we go overboard when we think we find them.
This is certainly the case with Martha Jane. How else could you explain her leaving her daughter alone with Jenkins despite her repeated pleas for her not to? It should be obvious now that there is a steep price to be paid for placing such blind faith in one as malevolent as Preacher Jenkins.
As much as I’d like to be able to praise Body and Soul as an early masterpiece, I’m sorry to say that I can’t. The film starts off too slowly, introduces a supporting character that ultimately serves no purpose and uses up too much screen time, and has too many scenes early on that do not move the plot forward. In fact, for the first ten minutes I wasn’t entirely sure what the film was doing, as characters seemed to be sitting around and the film cut to the next scene both far too often and far too quickly. There’s also a problem with the film’s intertitles. For long stretches of time, characters talk to each other about important things, yet there are no intertitles cueing the viewer in to their conversation. Significant moments are lost as a result. And then there’s the film’s ending, which can perhaps best be described as a cop-out in the vein of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
That said, from the moment Isabelle’s mother refuses to let her marry Sylvester to a scene in the forest in which a man is beaten to within an inch of life, the film is both riveting and shocking. It exposes the danger of blindly putting one’s faith in a stranger and demonstrates the tragedy that can befall the innocent when another’s word is given greater prominence than hers – even when disbelievers have all the facts at their disposal. And it shows just how difficult it is to accept both your moral failure and that of the person you put such faith into. In the end, Martha still wants to believe the lie. Sometimes it’s just less painful that way.
Body and Soul is a punch to the gut, a film that forces us to question why and whom we place our confidence in. It will make you reflect anew on current events, such as the ongoing child abuse scandal involving the Catholic Church, the Me Too and Times Up movements, and yes, the recent allegations against the late Michael Jackson. Body and Soul warned us. We just weren’t ready to listen yet. (on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Kino’s Pioneers of African-American Cinema)