Discussing the National Film Registry, films selected for preservation by the Library of Congress according to their historical, cultural, and aesthetic qualities.
(Originally published August 9th, 2020)
Here’s another positive function of the National Film Registry: righting past wrongs. Consider our director for the day, Oscar Micheaux, one of the first major African-American directors and producers, a purveyor of race films meant exclusively for black audiences from the 1920s through the 1940s. A self-made businessman, a true independent voice in cinema’s early years, an accomplished author, and an important critic of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation with his 1920 film (also preserved in the Registry) Within Our Gates. Micheaux should stand as an essential figure in American film’s silent age, a name recognized by cinephiles the world over, yet he is largely obscure because his work is largely lost. As Micheaux’s films were often equally critical of problems and shortcomings within the black community as they were towards white injustices, they rarely achieved much popularity or acclaim from the standard-bearers of their day, and so languished in obscurity until vanishing from the historical record — today, of 26 silent productions, a mere three survive, with the 1920 film The Symbol of the Unconquered only survived by fragmentary pieces. To archive and accord what work of his remains special preservation, future-proofing against potential further loss, is to ensure a vital developmental voice can still speak across ages.
Consider also our star, the great baritone of Paul Robeson. Accomplished college athlete, beloved singer of many popular, spiritual, and protest standards, an early popular black actor best known for his supporting role in the London premier and 1936 James Whale adaptation of Show Boat (another Registry entrant) as dockhand Joe, who sings that enduring showtune “Ol’ Man River.” Though Robeson isn’t half so obscure as Micheaux in theatrical, musical, and filmic circles, there is good reason for a branch of the United States government to honor his silver screen debut all the same. Being as Robeson was a man whose increasing social awareness across global travels led him to vocally advocate and pressure for legislation against lynching, argue for the decolonialization of Africa, support trade unions at home and abroad, and especially speak out against McCarthyism, he wasn’t exactly a popular figure with powerful people in his time. Blacklisted, denied travel outside the US, heavily restricted in how he could perform at home, grilled before Congress, spied on by the FBI for years following his most active period, driven to ill health and paranoia if we believe reports by his son; regardless what we can now call wrongheaded support for Stalin (including hiding knowledge of artists executed as enemies of the state), such persecution for advocacy on behalf of the oppressed over idiotic fear of communist subversion was just one of many gross misuses of political power by those in authority across decades. The highlighting and inclusion of his important works for future generations cannot ever adequately equal endeavoring to destroy a man’s livelihood for holding “unacceptable” political beliefs, but it is acknowledgement of his legacy and a step in the right direction all the same.
As a guard against oblivion and delayed compensation for federal wrongs, the National Film Registry can do quite a lot in selecting a single film to sit amongst its number.
To our feature itself, 1925’s Body and Soul. Drawn from a novel by Micheaux, we follow Robeson as an escaped convict hiding out as a small-town preacher, plotting his next move with Lawrence Chenault as a fellow escapee. The narrative is largely simple as one would expect from a melodrama of the day, principally concerned with how the phony Reverend Isaiah Jenkins’ actions impact Mercedes Gilbert as faithful parishioner Sister Martha Jane and Julia Theresa Russell as her daughter Isabelle. Across ninety minutes, we watch as the Reverend casts doubts on Isabelle’s suitor Sylvester (Isaiah’s identical brother, also Robeson), ropes the young woman into his power, and does an undefined but implicitly horrible something to her behind a fade to black, causing her to flee home with all her mother’s saving supposedly in hand. It takes Micheaux a good fifty minutes of slow build through conversation and incidental action before Isabelle will finally speak her story, and in speaking implicates Isaiah in some truly monstrous actions. The task then falls to Sister Martha to wrestle with whether she can truly believe a man she knows a holy devotee to the cloth capable of such deeds, and how to handle it if he really is so wicked.
It’s worth noting, Body and Soul does not exist in a state that matches to Micheaux’s original intent, even if it is extant to the original release. New York censors of the day were particularly harsh on this film, believing its story one capable of inciting violence amongst the population for its sacrilegious content, and so Micheaux not only cut the picture from nine reels to five, he added in an “all just a dream” ending, which obliterates any evils committed during its runtime. I suspect some of the main content was also recontextualized, as Isaiah’s character functions better as an actual holy man rather than a convict playing the part to dodge the law. Certainly, his evils are incredibly palpable during one of Micheaux’s signature flashback scenes, staged with more filmic style than his otherwise shot-as-theater approach to film, all dramatic lighting and fearful faces dominating the frame and picture cut down to a horizontal slice of shoes menacingly approaching, followed by a march the opposite direction with blood on their leather. Both the first flashback to rape and the second to show Isaiah strong-arming Isabelle into stealing the money for him before mocking her powerlessness to make anyone believe a reverend would do such things are highlight scenes, and they would hit with all the greater power if we knew this man as the real, corrupt before Christ deal. Same with the way he casts his brother as the untrustworthy criminal, same with his increasingly drunken antics as he sermonizes “Dry Bones in the Valley” to the hypocritical delight of his congregation, same with how he comes pathetically sniveling to Sister Martha’s feet after she exposed him for bringing her life to ruin. I can only think the newspaper clipping identifying Isaiah as a criminal at the film’s open is a guard against the censor’s ire, as it weakens the film’s arguments even before the ending denies its events altogether.
Reduced potential or no, the picture’s a fine example of Micheaux working simple techniques for scathing condemnation towards those who blindly embrace the holy when used as veil of the sinful to their ultimate detriment. It is also an excellent showcase of acting talent. Robeson shines as the evil preacher, his self-satisfied delight in abusing his office’s power readily subsumed beneath frustration and anger when balked, his personability at the pulpit with those winning grins undeniable in spite of what we know about his true nature. The way Gilbert falls into his charms, while not quite so pleasingly smooth a performance, does make a good portrayal of someone blinded by false smiles and a desire to believe in inherent goodness, one quickly broken by the theft of money from her Bible and the discovery of what’s happened to her daughter. Her performance in the final reel is, if not the most incredible thing you’ll see, affecting and fitting for the framing all the same. As to Russell as Isabelle, she’s mostly asked to act scared and disgusted beneath the weight of Robeson’s actions, but when she’s telling her story in a destitute Atlanta boarding house, there’s a harrowed, hollowed look on her face I just love. Taken as a unit, these three make Body and Soul a melodrama with searing social commentary well worth watching close to a century on, same as with Within Our Gates.
You don’t need me to tell you how the parable of a sinister minister hiding behind his office’s implicit public trust resonates today, though it’s definitely not my place to diagnose whether Micheaux’s intended targets within black communities remain a prominent issue. On a collective level, though, no matter race or creed, we all do better if we stop and grip our souls a little tighter when someone loudly proclaims a desire to save them, lest we or our loved ones fall victim to ills by hands whose owners our community would rather treat as above reproach. Life, unlike film, does not have a censorship board imposing happy endings to protect the supposed public good, and our errors in judgement will not find us awakened to a clean-cut scientist boyfriend Paul Robeson, all problems vanished like so much dreamstuff. Trust, but always doubt those in power, and believe the victimized before it’s too late. A fine message to find within our National Film Registry.
Next week, we move on to 1933, with Roy Del Ruth’s Pre-Hays Code sex film, starring original Perry Mason actor Warren William and future Academy Award winner Loretta Young, Employees’ Entrance! Unfortunately, my invite to the readerbase to read along is sorta stymied here, as no legal digital sources are streaming, renting, or selling the film at this time (though there are third-party uploads if you know where to look). I’ve got a Forbidden Hollywood Collection DVD in the mail right now, but the rest of y’all… gotta figure it yourselves. See you then!