Mostly recalled today for Paul Robeson’s film debut and as one of the relatively few surviving silent productions created by the pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, “Body and Soul” has more value as a historic curio than as a work of cinematic art.
Set in a Southern rural village, the film presents Robeson in a double role as an escaped convict posing as a pastor and as his twin brother, a humble would-be inventor. However, due to the inconsistencies in the screenplay and editing, the siblings never have any direct contact and, oddly, no one in the film ever remarks about the two men being brothers.
The good brother is mostly off-screen, thus enabling the bad brother to work his vile magic. A great deal of “Body and Soul” allows Robeson to play a villain to the fullest, and he responds with a full-throttle display of drunkenness, lust, jealousy, violence and a host of other sins. It is a major shame that the film was made during the silent movie era, as it would have been extraordinary to hear Robeson’s roaring voice pronouncing his raucous sermons (which he punctuated with sips of Prohibition-era booze and punches to the jaws of his deacons).
But beyond Robeson’s over-the-top performance, “Body and Soul” has neither body nor soul. The story’s connect-the-dots plot about a pious-but-dumb laundrywoman whose lovely daughter and deep-rooted faith are violated by the phony pastor is painfully quotidian, and the none-too-talented ensemble never invests the vehicle with any degree of serious emotion. At times, the story is so weak everyone in the film is either an idiot or a criminal and the acting is so lame that it feels like a parody of melodrama rather than the real thing.
What is surprising is the level of hostility that Micheaux directed at the African-American community. His portrayal of the churchgoing faithful as buffoons and his use of racial epithets and fractured English in the inter-titles is not something that one might expect from a screen artist who broke the color barrier as a director, producer and distributor.
Some of the problem with “Body and Soul” can be blamed on the surviving prints, which are based on a hastily edited version submitted for New York State censor review (the original director’s cut no longer exists). But that barely excuses the flimsy nature of the story, the clumsy editing and the overall air of tedium that permeates the film. Quite frankly, it is a fairly bad movie.