Thursday, February 3, 2022

African American Film History Month: Body and Soul

Body and Soul

Some people have a few more accomplishments than others. Paul Robeson went to Rutgers University on an academic scholarship and was named the class valedictorian. He was also playing football and was twice named to the All-American team. He went on to play for the National Football League while earning his Bachelor's of Law -- but he isn’t remembered as a football player or a lawyer. Instead, he's remembered as an actor, singer, and political activist.

He received acclaim in productions of Othello, Show Boat, and The Emperor Jones on Broadway and in Europe. He recorded spirituals; he often gave profits from the sale of those recordings to charity. He advocated for civil rights for blacks in the United States and the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, but he got into trouble when he supported the Soviet Union, gaining the interest of the F.B.I. He lost his passport but gained it back when his case went to the Supreme Court.

His life was, you might say, eventful.

He was also a movie star. His first film role, the starring role, was for the pioneering African American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux. In 1925’s Body and Soul (a silent film, of course), Robeson plays an escaped prisoner who disguises himself as the Right Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins, who comes to a small town and pastors a small congregation with the intention of swindling them out of their funds.

In the meantime, he finds plenty of nefarious activities. He goes to a local bar, enjoys the good liquor, and asks the owner for a “contribution.” 

“I’ve laid off preaching about this house of hell," he says, "but that may change soon.” 

He cheats and steals wherever there’s an opportunity, but the people of the congregation all think he’s wonderful -- all but beautiful young Isabelle Perkins. The “Reverend” falls for Isabelle, to the delight of Isabelle’s mother, Martha Jane, one of the most faithful in the congregation.

Isabelle is not interested in the “Reverend,” but is in love with Isaiah’s brother, Sylvester (also played by Robeson). When Isabelle refuses the fraud’s advances, he rapes her. He then steals Isabelle’s mother’s savings. 

Knowing her mother won’t believe the pastor stole the funds, Isabelle takes the blame herself (I don’t claim to understand this plot development). Isabelle flees to Atlanta and becomes ill. Her mother follows her, and before she dies, Isabelle tells her mother the true story. Martha Jane returns to her church and confronts the pastor in front of the congregation.

Turns out (Spoiler!) it was all a dream. Martha Jane wakes up to find Isabelle is fine and going to marry Sylvester.

We won’t give the Rev. Jenkins a steeple rating because he wasn’t a real pastor, The church gets a two steeple rating for its gullibility.

The film was entered in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 2019, primarily for being Paul Robeson's film debut.

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