To Redream the Dreams of White Playwrights: Reappropriation and Resistance in Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul
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To Redream the Dreams of White Playwrights:
Reappropriation and Resistance in Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul*

. . . the white American, figuratively [forces] the Negro down into the deeper level of his consciousness, into the inner world, where reason and madness mingle with hope and memory and endlessly give birth to nightmare and to dream; down into the province of the psychiatrist, and the artist, from whence spring the lunatic’s fancy and the work of art.

—Ralph Ellison

Scholars have found Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (filmed in late 1924, released in late 1925) to be a puzzling work which is remarkably resistant to sustained readings. Difficult to situate, it has been convenient to ignore. Although the picture was filmed in New York, was Paul Robeson’s screen debut, and profoundly engaged the cultural output of the Harlem Renaissance, histories of that important movement in African-American life barely mention Micheaux or his extraordinary achievement. 1 Likewise, American film histories have either ignored the picture completely or nodded briefly in its direction. 2 Even histories of African-American cinema are remarkably cursory. 3 This is all the more intriguing because the picture’s radical structure and technique make it a compelling object for analysis. Nevertheless, scholars have found it difficult to explain the ways in which these representational methods interact with the storyline and subject matter to create meaning. They have ended up describing the picture as “disjointed and raggedy” with a “somewhat confusing plot.” 4

The Problem of Micheaux’s Stylistics

The critical problems posed by Body and Soul (or any other Micheaux film) are highlighted by a consideration of the filmmaker’s use of narrative, by the very story that he seems to be telling. In Film Art: An Introduction, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson “consider a narrative to be a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space. . . . Typically a narrative begins with one situation; a series of changes occurs according to a pattern of cause and effect; finally a new situation arises that brings about the end of the narrative.” 5 In Body and Soul there are numerous problems with the “chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space.” To offer a blatant example, Paul Robeson plays twin brothers living in the same small town and involved with the same woman—one an escaped convict who is posing as a preacher, the other an aspiring inventor. Under these circumstances, [End Page 321] the sociopathic criminal would be known to his family and the community, making problematic the story’s premise as a believable tale. The film’s general disregard for standard narrative logic may be one reason Body and Soul goes unmentioned in Film Art. In their companion text to Film Art, Film History, Bordwell and Thompson do mention Micheaux, positioning him as a super-low-budget filmmaker whose rapid output helps to explain his disjunctive style. The peculiar narrativity of Body and Soul is thus explained by difficult production circumstances and limited funding. Micheaux is lauded primarily for his ability to present black concerns on the screen. 6

Forced to account for gaps in the narrative coherence of Body and Soul, other scholars, such as Thomas Cripps and Donald Bogle, have suggested that surviving copies were marred by censorship problems and by the likelihood that the prints were recut and reworked as they circulated from venue to venue. What survives is a fragment, a faint suggestion of the original. 7 Analysis of the film is thus difficult and must be speculative. Certainly there is evidence for this perspective. The George Eastman House (GEH) version is 7,700 feet in length—for a film originally advertised as 9 reels (each reel able to contain 1,000 feet of film). And there appears to be missing footage. The two female leads are not introduced in a manner consistent with other characters in the story (i.e., with title cards providing the names of the actresses). Such absences suggest that certain shots and intertitles, if not actual scenes, are missing from this version. Likewise the scene of Reverend Isiaah [sic] Jenkins (Robeson) killing the son of...