Oscar Micheaux directed 42 movies in his long and difficult career in Hollywood, many of them firsts. The Homesteader (1920), the first silent film produced by a black man; The Exile (1931), the first black–produced film with sound; and Body and Soul (1925), the first screen appearance of Paul Robeson. Robeson had the faculties to become the auteur of the films he starred in; he certainly was the driving force behind The Emperor Jones (1933), but Micheaux’s films belonged only to Micheaux, who worked tirelessly to carve a place for black stories to be told in cinema. It would have been nice if Michaeux had been more of an artist (his films* are more than competent but only rise above that in fits and starts), but he was the businessman and dynamo that was needed to force a place for his vision. Working independently at a time when that was unheard of, he often directed, produced, and wrote his own movies and occasionally edited and distributed them himself as well.
Movies are collaborative efforts, and as much as critics (myself included) love to attribute any effect of a movie, positive or negative, to its director, there are typically a good number of people to thank or blame. However, the type of monolithic control Micheaux enjoyed makes for often indulgent and rough filmmaking (Body and Soul, for example, feels laborious at 80 minutes), but each episode in his oeuvre is a testament to his fierce desire to construct his stories his way, and that intensity exists on the screen.
In many ways, Micheaux resembles Tyler Perry, who has worked his way into being the most successful black filmmaker of all time. Perry’s movies have been criticized for being cheap, quickly produced and at the service of perpetuating stereotypes, critiques that were laid at Micheaux’s feet 80 years prior. I’m largely unfamiliar with Perry’s filmography and what I have seen has failed to inspire me, but there’s no denying that he has an audience and that he provides content to it in an industry that can’t be bothered to. In Perry’s case, that audience is underserved; in Micheaux’s it was completely ignored. Regardless of what you think of Perry’s movies (and many people believe they do more harm than good), they undeniably create work for black professionals in the industry and provide a segment of the population that felt disenfranchised by the movies with entertainment. “Why do I say the the ‘70s?” Chris Rock asks when discussing the true date of baseball’s integration. “Because that’s when you start seeing bad black baseball players.” Micheaux’s films are not bad; in context of their time and the landscape they came out of they are essential, and Body and Soul is one of his best.
Body and Soul tells the story of the duplicitous Reverend Jenkins (Robeson), an escaped convict impersonating a holy man, who abuses the trust his religious position affords him to bilk the community at large out of money while financially and sexually terrorizing a young woman of his congregation, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell). Despite his obvious deviousness, his flock refuses to believe a man of the clothe would be anything but saintly and Jenkins’ debauchery goes unabated for far longer than it should. Against this backdrop it’s easy to see why Micheaux is accused of selling out his race, and that opinion, while not mine (in Body and Soul’s case, anyway), has validity. Certainly the ridicule heaped on many of the secondary characters and the ebonic-laden title cards are cringe-worthy, as is the unsettling insistence that the victims of Rev. Jenkins be quite light-skinned compared to darker hues of the perpetrators (there is a light-skinned deviant and a dark–skinned hero, though he’s played by Robeson in a double role). Many of Micheaux’s more sympathetic characters tend to be fairer and this tendency is at the heart of many of the criticisms laid before him, especially regarding his God’s Step Children (1938), which was accused of touting lighter skin as a symbol of superiority and that dark skin is reserved for buffoons (his Ten Minutes to Live , an often fascinating performance revue in Renaissance Harlem, includes a minstrel act in blackface).
However, my approval of Body and Soul comes from the belief that it isn’t a “race film” but a movie made by a black man about black people, every one an individual who represents only themselves. Micheaux himself noted that making movies about black people that are preternaturally good was not only narratively limiting but also gave white audiences a unrealistic and easily misunderstood view of their black neighbors and he preferred good stories to political considerations. It’s no different from contemporaries such as von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) or Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), which tell stories of depravity without that depravity being an indictment of the entirety of the character’s color. There’s no doubt we live in a world in which that type of freedom is rare when telling minority stories but I won’t fault Micheaux’s desire for wanting it.
Where I can fault Micheaux is in the movie’s flaws, however. Its storyline is rendered bizarre by an it-was-all-a-dream ending that was supposedly imposed by the censors (the abuse of religious trust was seen as objectionable so an ending was devised that reversed everything that had come before it, even the death of a character). But amateurism plagues the production and performances (outside of Robeson and Russell, the acting is either numbingly stiff or too big [tough to do in silent movies]) and that has only Micheaux to blame. Micheaux always had his eye on the bottom line and understood that he was a niche filmmaker and didn’t waste funds on trifles like retakes and rehearsals. When he doesn’t have the shots he needs in Body and Soul, he’ll repeat them as opposed to shooting new ones. It was his belief that his market had a ceiling and spending more might make for a better movie, but it wouldn’t raise that ceiling.
More than with the representation in front of the camera, I take umbrage with Micheaux for his cynical and calculating theories behind it, which purposefully served to create a lower class of entertainment for his audience. There are inspired moments in Body and Soul, and a violent confrontation between Jenkins and Isabelle is raw and spellbinding, but they are ill-served by the willfully inexpert filler that accompanies them. Still, Body and Soul and Micheaux deserve praise, certainly for introducing Robeson to the cinematic world (his work at the pulpit is mesmerizing) and for cutting out a space in the insular film industry for stories of a different color. Micheaux is a pioneer.
*A true survey of Micheaux’s work is slightly dubious in 2013 because, of his more than 40 directed works, only twelve survive in varying condition; any sweeping statements about his oeuvre, mine or otherwise, should take that fact into consideration.