In the silent era, black actors were hardly allowed on screen, even as maids or oafish comic relief. Hollywood would have loved a handsome, strapping presence like Paul Robeson, if only the industry hadn’t been blinded by racism. So the Rutgers football star and Columbia-educated lawyer made his film debut under the aegis of Oscar Micheaux, a go-it-alone entrepreneur who made his socially potent, artistically amateurish pictures on the super-cheap. In Body and Soul, Robeson plays two characters: the saintly Sylvester Jenkins and his venal brother, the “Reverend” Isaiah, an ex-con who wows the church ladies with his oratory, then sullies their virgin daughters and makes off with the victims’ life savings — in a Bible. It’s Isaiah who gets the screen time, which allows Robeson to radiate his unique movie appeal.
In a sensible society, the movie men out West would have seen the raw power of Robeson’s performance and signed him up. He did get a few supporting roles in Hollywood, notably in the 1936 Show Boat, singing “Old Man River” and playing opposite Hattie McDaniel. But his unapologetic charisma and machismo — call it charismo — had no place in the official American movie industry. Like Josephine Baker, the sinuous black dancer who emigrated to Paris and had several movies built around her personality, Robeson had to go to Britain to find leading roles. In these medium-budget dramas, he was always billed above the white stars; and in one of these films, 1937’s Jericho, he surely became the first movie man of color to call a white man “boy.” Back home, movie people pretended Robeson didn’t exist. That was a great loss, for him and for the strong characters he might have been able to embody. Not for the last time, we whisper: If only….