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The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), Body and Soul (1925), and Colorism.

February 11, 2014

BodyandsoulThroughout his career, Oscar Micheaux’s body of work has demonstrated his admirable intentions as a black filmmaker during the early 1900s. While his films lack in technical prowess, the stories he brought to the screen holds the weight that showcases his talents. Micheaux’s 1920 film The Symbol of the Unconquered and Body and Soul five years later presents us with Micheaux’s budding transformation as a director and story-teller. Micheaux used the aforementioned films, along with others in his repertoire, to deconstruct already established stereotypes enforced on African-Americans at the time. The general tropes established in films for blacks during this era were defined by author Donald Bogle as the “Mammy,” “Tom,” “Coon,” and “Tragic Mulatto” in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: The Interpretive History of Blacks in Films. Most black performers wanting to break into theater and film during this reign of stereotypes found themselves forced to embody these demeaning, underdeveloped roles that were usually concocted by white screenwriters.

Micheaux was often criticized both during his period of influence and after for his supposed “colorism” in his films, or the use of hiring light-skinned blacks as leads leaving darker skinned African-Americans to play the role of crooks or undesired members of society. However, this accusation is one built on lazy, ungrounded beliefs. Micheaux’s films are proof that he used blacks of all skin tones to portray both good, admirable qualities as well as negative, antagonistic qualities emphasizing the good and bad in all human beings of every color and shade.

In The Symbol of the Unconquered Micheaux tells a powerful story surrounding two mulatto characters. We meet Eve Mason, a light-skinned woman who moves north to inherit the land of her recently deceased grandfather. While travelling she encounters Jefferson Driscoll, a mulatto who passes for white and despises his black side with such ardent disdain that his introduction in the film involves him choking his black mother after her presence reveals to a white woman he is attempting to woo of his mixed background. Eve soon after meets Hugh Van Allen, a neighbor on the land she moves to. Just as the two grow comfortable on their living in close quarters, Jefferson and his company of horse thieves discover Hugh’s land is rich with oil. When Van Allen refuses to sell his land to them they react with a midnight ride dressed as KKK members and a struggle for his land ensues.

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The Symbol of the Unconquered introduces us to the duality of its lighter skinned characters. Jefferson Driscoll is the owner of an Inn. Routed in spite, Jefferson seeks pleasure at turning away blacks, despite being half-black himself. When Abraham (E.G. Tatum), a man looking for a room, stumbles into his Inn, Jefferson sends the man to sleep in the barn for the night. Immediately after he almost gives a room to a white woman, but soon realizes that she (Eve) is a mulatto and as punishment for her African blood he boots her to the barn as well. He even howls in laughter when she gets lost in a storm and slips into puddles and mud.

Micheaux proved his awareness of the color caste system within his own race and the different experiences had by between lighter and darker skinned blacks. He even toys with the misconception of the fear of a dark man when during the night’s storm in the barn Abraham covers his head with a coat to which Eve becomes frightened seeing his face as threatening and grotesque. A tight close-up reveals his eyes shifting in the dark with his coat covering her and her fear of what she has seen. Moments later once the storm has stopped the wanderer happily continues through his day being seen throughout the film in light-hearted jest with others leaving the notion of difference between dark and light an all but forgotten moment of misconception.

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Micheaux’s quintessential 1925 film, Body and Soul, follows the exploits of a crooked preacher and how his degenerate actions affect a devout mother and her fragile daughter, Isabelle. Fresh out of prison an ex-convict finds his way into a small town assuming the role of a preacher named Revered Jenkins (Paul Robeson). His charming personality keeps his followers piously hanging on to his every word, including Martha Jane, the mother of Isabella. Although Isabella is being happily courted by Jenkins’ twin brother Sylvester (Robeson), Martha wants her daughter to marry the incorrigible Jenkins for whom she has saved up money to give to when Isabella accepts his proposal. However, Isabella sees through Jenkins’ disguise but is punished by the Reverend for her knowledge. She runs away from home leaving her mother to pick up the pieces to discover what drove her daughter away.

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With a hulking stature that stood 6 foot 3 inches tall and classically handsome good looks, Robeson proved himself to be more than a pleasing physique. Robeson captures the intense passion of Reverend Jenkins with ample charm and poise to make the devotion of his church going followers easy to understand. With an alluring smile and eyes that light when he’s the focus of a scene, Robeson demands attention from characters and viewers alike. Yet, he’s able to capture the perverse, drunken fury of his character as well creating scenes of menacing tension. During a Sunday morning worship scene, Micheaux hilariously allows Robeson to flaunt his talents as he preaches to his audience with fierce determination alternating between taking sips of liquor from his water glass, punching the deacon, and pocketing tithes. And yet, the pure shock and shame he exhibits when his true nature is revealed further speaks volumes to both Robeson and Micheaux’s skills.

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Some have written that Micheaux often utilized light-skinned blacks as his leads to establish a “new middle class” leaving darker skinned characters to play villains, however, the truth in such a statement is shameful and without merit. Robeson tackles the part of portraying the Body and Soul’s main antagonist, but rivals himself as the kind, endearing brother Sylvester. Although Isabelle’s intentions are to marry Sylvester, she is stopped only by the interference of her mother’s misguided advice and interjection. The act of Robeson, a dark-skinned lead, playing the part of both characters installs the notion that despite his skin tone he was seen as an attractive, promising bachelor.

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The Symbol of the Unconquered and Body and Soul both excel in telling intriguing tales through a black cultural lens. While Body and Soul is less of a race vehicle than The Symbol of the Unconquered the two further showcase what Micheaux’s aim as a filmmaker were. The pride of black unity and self-awareness is evident within both films though Body and Soul leans more toward the struggles in pious ways of thinking and how more often than not church goers find themselves sheepishly following flawed human beings. The Symbol of the Unconquered centers itself more on black pride as Van Allen refuses to succumb to the threats of a group of racist citizens. In a missing scene, we are informed of how a major plot conflict is solved, and it’s through a black man’s power. Unfortunately the scene has disappeared from audience awareness leaving the power of the image a mere thought. Nevertheless, Micheaux made sure that his films revolved around the power blacks held within themselves as well as the duality in all human beings. Micheaux pushed for audiences to choose the light instead of dark, for lack of better terms, a sentiment that a missing scene simply can’t ignore.

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One Comment leave one →
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