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Reviving and Reviewing the “Race Film”

Body and Soul

Dir. Oscar Micheau, 1925, 102 min

Co-presented by Wolf Humanities Center and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with Lightbox Film Center at International House Philadelphia.

This series revisits so-called “race films”: works of independent African American cinema produced from the 1910s to the 1940s. The afterlives of these  flms are manifest in their recurring religious themes, the vexed politics of their preservation and restoration, and their creative in influence on later  filmmakers.

Body and Soul 
Paul Robeson plays both the saintly Sylvester Jenkins and his ex-con brother, the “Reverend” Isaiah, who wows the church ladies with his oratory, then sullies their virgin daughters and makes off with their life savings. Featuring a new soundtrack by DJ Spooky.

"Body and Soul (1925), the best-known silent film of pioneer black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, offered Paul Robeson, the great singer/actor/athlete, his first opportunity in films. Robeson has a dual role, playing both an escaped convict who presents himself as a minister, and the convict's upstanding brother. The 'bad' brother extorts from the owner of a gambling house and betrays an honest girl, bringing them both to ruin. Although it was a theme that proved controversial with his audiences, Micheaux turned several times to the subject of corruption and dishonesty among the clergy.

Made by black filmmakers for black audiences, Body and Soul has an all-black cast except for one white actor, whose supporting character is shown selling rancid meat - a symbol of the exploitation of blacks. The crew was largely African American as well, although Micheaux employed some white cameramen who worked cheaply because they were not in the cinematographers' union." - Roger Fristoe, Turner Classic Movies