A decade after Booker T. Washington’s death and the public outcry against
D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, Oscar Micheaux released his thirteenth film,
Body and Soul (1925). A major example of 1920s race film, Body and Soul be-
came famous for the screen debut of Paul Robeson and infamous for the con-
troversy over its representation of Black criminality. Typical for Micheaux’s
work, the plot is far from straightforward, and its convoluted structure in-
volves an array of figures that represent a range of character types—the full
spectrum of Black humanity. Robeson plays twins who have opposite charac-
teristics: a charlatan masquerading as a preacher named Reverend Jenkins and
his brother Sylvester, an upstanding aspiring inventor. The film centers on the
lives of Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert), a laundress, and her daughter Isabelle
(Julia Theresa Russell). Isabelle is in love with Sylvester but Martha Jane pushes
her toward Reverend Jenkins, not realizing that he is in fact a con man. Jenkins
takes advantage of Martha Jane’s faith and assaults Isabelle. Because Martha
Jane is blind to the truth of her “pastor,” he is able to extort her hard- earned
savings from her daughter. Knowing that her mother would never believe her
word over that of Jenkins, Isabelle flees to Atlanta and dies of starvation, but
not before Martha Jane has found her and learned the truth. No longer de-
ceived by Jenkins, she confronts him in the middle of a Sunday sermon and
turns his betrayed congregation against him. Escaping, Jenkins seeks forgive-
ness from Martha Jane who relents, pardoning the con man. Showing no genu-
ine remorse, he goes on to kill a young male parishioner in a gruesome attack
in the middle of the woods. At this point, to add to the confusion, Martha Jane
wakes up and reveals that it was all a nightmare. Having learned a lesson from
the dream, however, she blesses the marriage of her daughter to Sylvester, the
proper “uplift” man.
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