Paul Robeson’s career is of course fascinating, and well worth reading up on, and while his appearance in the stage production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones predates Body and Soul (he had previously gained some success on stage, primarily in musical theatre, in the early-20s), the film of that play wasn’t to be made until the sound era. Instead our first glimpse of Robeson on screen was to be this film by pre-eminent and pioneering Black American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who five years earlier had made the fascinating (and superior) retort to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in Within Our Gates. Between Micheaux’s filmmaking — which sadly has been ravaged by the censors and survives only in this shorter cut — and Robeson’s magnetic screen presence, this is a fine film made for a Black audience, which very much implicates the role of the church through Robeson’s turn as a devious preacher Reverend Jenkins, who drinks heavily, steals money and commits rape (portrayed subtly but no less clearly) without raising concerns from his adulatory congregation. The film ends with a twist and the reveal of a dual role for Robeson, which stretches credulity somewhat, but this kind of ending is hardly unusual for the period or indeed for American cinema. The Criterion release includes a brilliant jazzy score by Wycliffe Gordon which only adds to the film’s depth, making it a highlight of the silent era.
Five years later and Borderline really feels like a one-of-a-kind film, nominally a Swiss production by a British crew, and a strange experiment in form that plays with all kinds of themes. These range from the racism and hypocrisy of a small town, a man called Thorne (Gavin Arthur) whose marriage is falling apart due to his affair with Adah, a Black woman (Eslanda Robeson) who’s married to Paul Robeson’s character Pete, not to mention what seems like a gay subtext with some of the women we see (one of whom is played by the excellently pseudonymous Helga Doom). Any of these themes individually would probably make the film interesting, but it’s the boldly experimental style that makes it so watchable, cutting across the various characters in an almost free-associative way. The score for the restoration is provided by Courtney Pine, and is jazzy and propulsive when it needs to be and I think elevates the film even further. A strange, singular late-silent period work.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Body and Soul (1925) [classification PG]
Director/Writer Oscar Micheaux (based on his novel); Cinematographer [unknown]; Starring Paul Robeson, Julia Theresa Russell, Mercedes Gilbert; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Wednesday 11 November 2020.
Borderline (1930) [classification 12]
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Kenneth Macpherson; Starring Paul Robeson, Eslanda Robeson, Gavin Arthur, Hilda Doolittle [as “Helga Doom”]; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Saturday 14 November 2020.