In celebration of Black History Month, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s African American Network presents a screening on Feb. 25 of Oscar Micheaux’s silent film “Body and Soul” (1925) with an original score by Chicago-based composer Renee Baker. Directed by the pioneering Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951) and rarely shown, the film features Paul Robeson (1898-1976) in his motion-picture debut.
A native of downstate Metropolis, Micheaux is regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker, producing more than 44 films in his lifetime. He made both silent and sound movies, many of them “race films,” a term used to describe early cinema intended for all-black audiences and featuring all-black casts. One of only three surviving silent films by Micheaux, “Body and Soul” was originally censored for being “immoral” and “sacrilegious” because of the deeds it depicts, including exploitation, robbery and rape. In dual roles, Robeson portrays a convict impersonating a preacher and a good-hearted inventor. After running afoul of censors, “Body and Soul” was cut from nine to five reels. The film fell into obscurity until 2000 when it was presented at the New York Film Festival in its shorter form; the cut reels are now considered lost.
The version to be shown at Symphony Center features a vibrant score for jazz orchestra by composer-conductor Renee Baker, the founding music director the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project and a longtime silent movie fan. “I felt that in order to make what was relevant in that film more relevant 90 years later, I had to score it in the now,” Baker said. “I wasn’t aiming to leave people with tunes to hum. But what I was aiming for was to leave people with vivid scenes from the movie.” This pairing of Micheaux’s visuals with Baker’s music received critical acclaim when the film was screened recently at the Museum for Contemporary Art, the Music Box Theatre and Roger Ebert’s Film Festival in Urbana-Champaign.
Due to demand, the screening has been moved to Buntrock Hall (instead of Grainger Ballroom); the date and time remain the same, 3 p.m. Feb. 25. To purchase tickets, $15, visit cso.org or call (312) 294-3000. After the screening, CSO musicians will appear for Q&A with Baker. To connect with the CSO’s African American Network, email email@example.com.
TOP: Paul Robeson in Oscar Micheaux’s silent film “Body and Soul” (1926).