Paul Robeson: Outsider — Body & Soul/​Borderline

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #371: Oscar Micheaux’s Body & Soul and Kenneth MacPherson’s Borderline.

Body & Soul

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Paul Robeson and Oscar Micheaux are leg­endary, so I was ea­ger to see what they could do in col­lab­o­ra­tion. Body & Soul is Robeson’s first screen ap­pear­ance, and quite an open­ing act. The sto­ry is about a ar­che­typ­al hus­tler who’s hus­tle hap­pens to in­volve be­ing an ar­che­typ­al black preacher. There’s hypocrisy, drunk­en­ness, rape, and mur­der; just from the preacher! The film is strong through­out, but pass­es the strength be­tween Robeson’s com­plete trans­for­ma­tion in­to a Jekyll & Hyde char­ac­ter and Micheaux’s fa­cil­i­ty with shot se­lec­tion, cin­e­matog­ra­phy and edit­ing. Body & Soul are typ­i­cal­ly bound to­geth­er in mu­tu­al­ly pos­i­tive terms [e.g. Good for body & soul.] but in this film they are op­pos­ing forces. An easy anal­o­gy can al­so be made: Robeson as Body; his phys­i­cal pres­ence com­plete­ly mag­net­ic. This leaves Soul for Micheaux, who is able to in­ti­mate vi­o­lence with a shot of shoes walk­ing through a door, or an in­ter-ti­tle that sim­ply says “Later.”

The film on­ly fails at the fin­ish line. The dé­noue­ment seemed like a grand cop-out to me. For the ma­jor­i­ty of the film, the dra­ma plays out as an ex­plic­it crit­i­cism of min­istry and an im­plic­it cri­tique of cul­tur­al lar­ce­ny in gen­er­al. The fact that Micheaux felt the need to end with a “just play­in’ y’all” doesn’t in­di­cate a fail­ure of ide­al­ism to me, but like­ly a prac­ti­cal un­der­stand­ing of the re­cep­tion the film would have got­ten with a less fairy-tale con­clu­sion. Nevertheless, I feel like it is fair­ly well neutered by the last ten min­utes, much like Campion’s The Piano was spayed in the same way.

The jazz score for the Criterion re­lease is mag­nif­i­cent. There’s some smooth jazz, acid jazz, chain-gang­ing, and gospel echoes through­out, many times mar­velous­ly jux­ta­posed to em­pha­size sub­text that an au­di­ence used to talkies might typ­i­cal­ly miss.

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Oscar Micheaux’s Body & Soul: Visual Representation and Social Construction of African-American Identity
Comprehensive Oscar Micheaux
Article about the jazz score for the new print.
• YouTube clip of Body & Soul.

Borderline

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Borderline is a very dif­fer­ent film from Body & Soul. It’s a British avant-garde film about an in­ter-racial love tri­an­gle. Robeson’s role in this film is much less sub­stan­tive, but no less ef­fec­tive. This ef­fort­less ef­fi­ca­cy is en­abled by the sto­ry­line and its in­evitable racial­ly-charged con­fronta­tion. This film is fair­ly so­phis­ti­cat­ed, it us­es mon­tage lib­er­al­ly, but in a very re­fined man­ner. I’ve nev­er seen a film where com­plete­ly mo­tion­less fig­ures can make a scene feel un­ut­ter­ably vi­o­lent. When the storm ac­tu­al­ly comes, it is al­most a re­lief; the sub­con­scious clues sup­plied by the mon­tage-fore­shad­ow­ing turn the screen ten­sion in­to re­al ten­sion held by the view­er. MacPherson’s use of mon­tage of­ten blends with the ac­tion in­stead of stand­ing sep­a­rate­ly as a sort of para­ble like some­thing out of Vertov. Thus, the pop of a cham­pag­ne cork and the dark stain it leaves on the wall sug­gests a gun­shot and blood­stain, and a wom­an trim­ming a hat with shears im­plies the thoughts of the man play­ing with a knife in the shot that pre­cedes it.

The jazz score for this film is al­so very good, but even with­out it the amount of sound present in the ac­tion of this silent film is as­tound­ing. Unfortunately the tech­ni­cal as­pects of the film are its great­est strength. The plot is prob­a­bly a bit too com­pli­cat­ed to be ef­fec­tive­ly por­trayed in a silent film, and while Robeson’s role is ac­tu­al­ized through a sin­gle punch, the abrupt end­ing and near­ly non-ex­is­tent moral would be bet­ter suit­ed to a doc­u­men­tary and not a dra­ma. Perhaps this Modern, am­bigu­ous end­ing was pre­cise­ly the point, but if there is no par­tic­u­lar point to be made, why make a movie that so des­per­ate­ly seems to need one?

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Screenonline syn­op­sis and mul­ti­me­dia. Unfortunately the clips are on­ly avail­able to cer­tain Brits.
Luxonline History.

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