Paul Robeson began his 1958 book, Here I Stand (1), with that simple but absolutely unambiguous declaration. Concert singer, actor, All-American footballer, political activist, yes, but for Robeson his race was the overall determining factor in the way he lived his life.
In November 1939, his broadcast of Ballad for Americans was acclaimed with near-hysterical patriotic fervour throughout America. Ballad was used at the next Republican convention. Yet the day after a second broadcast, a major hotel would not serve him in its public dining room. (2)
A decade later, the State Department took away his passport. In 1961, he slashed his wrists in a Moscow hotel room. His son, Paul Jr., believed that “his father had been ‘neutralized’ by malignant unknowns, possibly CIA agents, at the ‘wild party’ preceding the suicide attempt” (3). He died in 1976, his final years marred by depression and illness. By the end of the century, a BBC documentary commented that, despite his enormous artistic achievements and major contribution to Civil Rights, this giant had been almost forgotten – or wiped effectively from the awareness of many Americans. (4)
The recent release by Criterion of Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist allows us at last a chance to evaluate at least part of his legacy: his work in films. It contains six of his eleven fiction feature films and a major documentary in which he was involved.
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Paul Robeson was born in 1898, the youngest son of a former slave. His father, at the age of 15, had escaped from a plantation in North Carolina and made his way north by the Underground Railway. When Paul was born, the youngest of four surviving children, the Reverend William D. Robeson was the pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey.
Robeson’s mother died when he was only six, when her long dress caught fire from a coal that had rolled from the stove. Three years earlier, the Reverend Robeson had lost his position. Influential people in the wider community had been made to feel distinctly uncomfortable by his sermons attacking social injustices. This was one thing Paul Robeson inherited from his father.
He who comes hand-in-hand is expected to bow and bend, and so I marvel that there was no hint of servility in my father’s make-up. Just as in youth he had refused to remain a slave, so in all the years of his manhood he disdained to be an Uncle Tom. From him we learned, and never doubted it, that the Negro was in every way the equal of the white man. And we fiercely resolved to prove it. (5)
There was something else he got from his father:
Yes, I heard my people singing! – in the glow of parlor coal-stove and on summer porches sweet with lilac air, from choir loft and Sunday morning pews – and my soul was filled with their harmonies. Then, too, I heard these songs in the very sermons of my father, for in the Negro’s speech there is much of the phrasing and rhythms of folk-song. The great, soaring gospels we love are merely sermons that are sung; and as we thrill to such gifted gospel singers as Mahalia Jackson, we hear the rhythmic eloquence of our preachers, so many of whom, like my father, are masters of poetic speech. (6)
Encouraged by his father, Paul Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers University, only the third Negro to be admitted in more than 150 years. He studied law, joined the university debating team, played in the school football team and performed with the Glee Club. He was the first player from his university to be selected to play All-American football. But when he went out for his first try out with his new team, he was so beaten up by his own team mates that he was in bed for ten days afterwards. Some college teams refused to play if Robeson was on the opposing team, and he frequently was targeted more heavily than any other player, because of his colour.
He joined a large prestigious law firm, but refused to accept the racism he came across there. A secretary refused to take dictation from a black. He was offered the opportunity to open a Harlem branch of the law firm. Instead, he left the law, sensing it was a “profession where the highest prizes were from the start denied to me” (7).
Building on success from his university Glee Club activities, he almost drifted into acting and singing. In 1923, he became involved with the Provincetown Players, and the playwright Eugene O’Neill. He appeared in the premiere of O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings and a revival of The Emperor Jones – though both productions had great difficulty. All God’s Chillun, in particular, was the focus of a campaign by several William Randolph Hearst newspapers because of the explosive theme of miscegenation.
In 1928, Robeson appeared in the London production of Show Boat, where he sang the song that became his signature, “Ol’ Man River”. Two years later, he appeared as Othello, opposite a 22-year-old newcomer, Peggy Ashcroft. Despite its success in England, the production was deemed too risky to be taken to America; it was another 13 years before Broadway could accept a black actor actually playing the role. That 1943 production became the longest-running Shakespeare play on Broadway.
Robeson’s main asset was a beautiful bass voice: rich and burnished like polished ebony, he triumphed in programs of Negro spirituals and similar songs. As his international career flourished, he added traditional songs from many countries. For Robeson, singing was not just an entertainment, but a powerful means of communication.
The power of spirit that our people have is intangible, but it is a great force that must be unleashed in the struggles of today […] That spirit lives in our people’s songs – in the sublime grandeur of “Deep River”, in the driving power of “Jacob’s Ladder”, in the militancy of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and in the poignant beauty of all our spirituals. (8)
Between 1925 and 1942, Robeson appeared in eleven fiction feature films. Robeson ultimately was disappointed with his film career and quit after he felt that his final film, Tales of Manhattan (Julien Duvivier, 1942), perpetuated Hollywood’s negative stereotyping of blacks. His film work up till then provides an insight into a number of interesting aspects of filmmaking in those years, as well as reflecting social attitudes towards blacks as the Civil Rights movement started to stir.
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Oscar Micheaux was a novelist who was determined to direct the film version of one of his books. That film, The Homesteader (1919), an inter-racial romance, is generally recognised as the first feature-length Race movie. Race movies co-existed alongside Hollywood for about thirty years, giving black audiences the chance to see positive black characters. At their height, there were about 300 cinemas catering exclusively for black audiences. An impetus for Race movies was certainly black hostility to their depiction in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Micheaux was the most important director and producer in this field, making more than forty films between The Homesteader and his final film, The Betrayal, in 1948. About half of these were silents, of which only four are known to still exist, which gives Robeson’s début film, Body and Soul (1925), an extra importance.
Micheaux often cast his actors for their reputation in the Negro community. Robeson, the minister’s son, is here cast as minister, the Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins. In actual fact, Isaiah is a scoundrel, an ex-convict setting out to get as much money from the church as he can, as well as debauching the pure Isabelle (Mercedes Gilbert), daughter of a mother too blinded by her faith to see through the wiles of the “man of God”.
Robeson makes a wonderful scoundrel. It is a silent film, so he does not have the resource of his resonant voice to call upon, but he is an imposing figure, relaxed and alive. His “Dry bones in the valley” sermon, designed to milk the collection money from the churchgoers, is a tour-de-force. His face is flexible, his eyes gleam, his warm smile seduces his audience – and us.
The naturalness and ease of this performance is thrown into relief by the largely wooden, exaggerated performances of others in the cast. Robeson is such a wonderful villain it can be regretted that he didn’t play any more baddies.
As well as Isaiah, Robeson plays his good brother, Sylvester. His success in this double role is enough evidence of his talent as an actor. In fact, this double act, in its ease and relaxed nature, in many ways is his most successful performance. However, the film ran into trouble. Authorities reacted to its depiction of an Episcopalian minister as a rogue and a rapist. Micheaux had to cut it from 9 to 5 reels and it is this version that exists today. It was not a great success with its original audience, and today we are more likely to be very aware of its limited production values and simplistic story line. But Robeson gives notice of an intensely charismatic, natural screen presence.
In the 1920s, many artists and writers embraced the cinema as a medium with more potential than the simple narrative aims typified by Hollywood. People from René Clair to Germaine Dulac, from Luis Buñuel to Jean Epstein and Marcel L’Herbier, were making works, often lumped under the heading of avant-garde that explored new, challenging ways of using the medium. Filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and G. W. Pabst were esteemed as demonstrating new technical and thematic possibilities for the cinema.
In 1930, Robeson was involved in a film that can be seen as part of this avant-garde tradition. Borderline (Kenneth Macpherson) was filmed in Switzerland, the experience being more of a lark than work for Robeson. He plays Pete Varond, “a Negro”. Robeson’s wife, Eslanda, also appears in the film as “Adah, a Negro woman”. Pete and Adah variously become entangled with another couple, and events lead to a death. Although Pete was not responsible for the death, that’s enough for the mayor of the town to tell Pete to get out of town. But the mayor’s racism is criticised by a final shot of a black hand and a white hand clasped in friendship in a stunning close-up.
There are frequent strong images and Macpherson experiments with different editing rhythms, reflecting the influence of Eisenstein. In a climactic scene, Astrid (Hilda Doolittle) is twirling a knife, her husband Thorne (Gavin Arthur) is cut, daffodils on the table are in danger and the editing propels the scene with a sense of menace. At the same time, several intercuts to the bar downstairs are confusing, and downplay the climax of Astrid’s death.
In one of the major biographies of Robeson, Martin Bauml Duberman writes:
Macpherson meticulously planned camera angles and movements in advance of the Robesons’ arrival, hoping to make maximum use of their limited stay by completing enough “one-take” footage to permit later splicing. He spent far less time on the scenario. (9)
This way of working is evident in the finished film. The narrative is unclear and, despite many strong, discrete images, they are not edited with a sense of narrative impact or continuity. Relationships are not clearly established, establishing shots are only infrequently used, and often the relationship between shots is not clear.
Although it was made in 1930, it is a silent film. Robeson was obviously attracted by the implied critique of racism. In an essay accompanying the Criterion set, Ian Christie sums up its position in cinema history this way:
Borderline is an early example of the “artist’s film” where we see leading figures from other media using film in quite different ways from professional storytellers, in a tradition that stretches from Man Ray and Hans Richter in the twenties to Yvonne Rainer and Matthew Barney today. In many ways, Borderline was ahead of its time, as it tried to marry Pabst’s psychological realism to Eisenstein’s aspirations for montage as a truly new language of cinema.
Robeson had actually already been involved in a very curious film enterprise several years earlier. His filmography lists his appearance as Alexandre Dumas fils, in a version of Camille (Ralph Barton) in 1926. Rather than being an early film version of a much-adapted story, this is basically a 30-minute “home movie” starring much of the artistic and literary world of New York of the time. Anita Loos (writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) is Camille. But any storyline is only a pretext to have about 50 cameo appearances. The cast list is impressive. It includes major writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, H. L. Mencken, W. Somerset Maugham and Ferenc Molnar, conductors Arturo Toscanini and Serge Koussevitzky, actors including Dorothy Gish and Richard Barthelmess, directors Rex Ingram and Max Reinhardt, lawyer Clarence Darrow (famous for the Scopes’ ‘monkey trial’ and for defending the killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb) and Charlie Chaplin.
Robeson’s appearance is typical of the film that looks like it was filmed as a diversion for the houseguests at a weekend party at Barton’s home. A title card typed on a domestic typewriter tells us, “DUMAS – master word-painter of the human emotions – burnt the midnight oil to guide us a little, with his mighty pen, on the Road of Life.” Then we have a shot of Robeson, in a magnificent silk dressing gown and bow tie, sitting at a desk, pen in hand, looking pensively at the ceiling. And that’s all – onto the next celebrity cameo.
Charles Chaplin reprises his dance of the bread rolls from The Gold Rush (1925), which is how this little oddity turns up as an extra on the DVD release of another Chaplin film, A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate (1923).
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In the early days of my career as an actor, I shared what was then the prevailing attitude of Negro performers – that the content and form of a play or film scenario was of little or no importance to us. What mattered was the opportunity, which came so seldom to our folks, of having a part – any part – to play on the stage or in the movies; and for a Negro actor to be offered a starring role – well, that was a rare stroke of fortune indeed! Later I came to understand that the Negro artist could not view the matter simply in terms of his individual interests, and that he had a responsibility to his people who rightfully resented the traditional stereotyped portrayals of Negroes on stage and screen. (10)
Paul Robeson wrote that in his 1958 memoir-cum-personal statement, Here I Stand. This attitude is clearly reflected in the way that his film career evolved over the 1930s. He made more films in England than in America, partly because the resort to stereotyping seemed stronger to him in American cinema, and he hoped to have more control over the finished films in England. He also felt more comfortable with the way he was accepted as a person in England – in fact, almost anywhere other than in America.
His two major American films were both film versions of stage productions in which he had had considerable success. The Emperor Jones (Dudley Murphy, 1933) came from Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 drama, with Robeson in the title role, Brutus Jones. The other, Show Boat (James Whale, 1936), was the second film version of the 1927 Broadway musical. Robeson reprised the role of Joe, which he had performed in the London production. He had been scheduled to create the role in the original Florenz Ziegfeld production but had been forced to relinquish the role because of scheduling conflicts. (George Gershwin had also offered Robeson the chance to create the role of Porgy in Porgy and Bess, but he had turned it down.)
The Emperor Jones gave a Negro a starring role. It was a powerful drama, exploring issues of power and politics, in an unusual, expressionistic way. Brutus Jones rises from being a Pullman Porter to the ruler of a small Caribbean island. The original play told the story in a series of flashbacks, as Jones is pursued by his former subjects. The film uses a straightforward chronological structure, though the final episode of his pursuit through the tropical jungle is emphasised by being tinted.
When director Dudley Murphy secured the film rights, O’Neill insisted that only Paul Robeson could play Brutus Jones. The role had originally brought stage stardom to Robeson, though he did not originate it. The film faced many problems. The Hays Office demanded that scenes between Robeson and his leading lady, Fredi Washington, be reshot because her skin was too light and she may be mistaken for a white woman. She had to wear dark make-up. Both the play and the film frequently used the term “nigger” in dramatically appropriate ways, but cuts were demanded in its use. Some of these cuts have left minor picture or soundtrack loss in the copy restored by the Library of Congress in 2001 and used in the Criterion Box Set.
At the time of its release, the black community was divided as to the film’s merits. Some were pleased to see a black in the major role, a role moreover that dominated any of the white characters in the story. Others saw it as once again rehashing the negative stereotypes. After all, Brutus Jones was a savage, a murderer, superstitious. He may become an Emperor, but he is not a wise or benevolent ruler. In his egotistical and self-serving approach to ruling, perhaps he wasn’t far removed from D. W. Griffith’s representation of blacks as genetically incapable of being trusted with government, in The Birth of a Nation.
These attitudes reflect the ambiguity or contradictions of the film. O’Neill was no doubt unconsciously reflecting the values of many of his era – sympathetic to the Negro, and yet still afflicted by attitudes with racist elements. Could such a film be made today? Perhaps it could. Brutus Jones consolidates his régime by spreading the information that he can only be killed by a silver bullet! This superstition helps him terrorise his subjects with the conviction of his invincibility. And in The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006), Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) spreads the knowledge that he is invincible because a soothsayer has told him the exact time of his death. Does Amin “prove” O’Neill’s thesis?
The strongest asset in the film is Robeson, a performance of strength and charisma. The final fifteen minutes is virtually a solo tour-de-force, as he reverts from ruler to primitive, superstitious black pursued by his former subjects. Robeson’s reputation as a singer is exploited by the interpolation of several songs. Generally, these are well integrated, such as the use of “Water Boy” in the chain-gang scene.
Robeson was reluctant to appear in the film version of Show Boat (1936). He was now more sensitive to the full ramifications of the way a character is presented. Joe is not a major character in the story. The original Broadway musical opens (dramatically) with the words, “Niggers all work on the Mississippi”, effectively setting the background against which the explosive story will take place. About the only contribution the character Joe really makes to the narrative is to sing “Ol’ Man River”, the most enduring song from the show.
Robeson’s wife, Eslanda, persuaded him to take the role – on one level, for the very pragmatic reason that their finances needed the considerable fee he would earn. By 1936, Robeson’s identification with the show was so strong that the film role was considerably expanded, and he was given extra numbers. (11) This film version (infinitely more enjoyable than the version directed by George Sidney with all the MGM Technicolor gloss in 1951) is currently not available on DVD.
Robeson’s fears about the projection of further negative images of blacks have some basis. Joe is a bit of a lazy layabout. But the warmth of his scenes with Queenie (Hattie McDaniel) makes us see Joe as an individual character, not a generic type. And, in other ways, director James Whale did recognise and pay tribute to the Negroes forced to work on the Mississippi. During “Ol’ Man River”, the burden of the song is enforced with stark images of blacks toiling under the weight of heavy bales of cotton.
In between these American films, Robeson had made his first film in England, Sanders of the River (Zoltan Korda, 1935).
London was the center of the British Empire and it was there that I “discovered” Africa. That discovery, which has influenced my life ever since, made it clear that I would not live out my life as an adopted Englishman, and I came to consider that I was an African. (12)
This interest in his African ancestry influenced several of his film roles, including the part of Bosambo in Sanders. But this was a major disappointment to him, a film where the final version was so far removed from his hopes for it. Seen today, it is an embarrassing, jingoistic, imperial boys-own colonial fantasy. R. G. Sanders (Leslie Banks) is a British Colonial administrator, almost single-handedly able to subdue an area in tropical Africa, where primitive blacks and some evil white gun-runners try to disturb the peace brought by the British.
Robeson is the physical centre of the film – and the first name above the title, an indication of his star status at that time. But he is not the protagonist. Instead, his magnificent physique, probably more comfortable in the white tie and tails of the recital hall, is exploited in an animal skin loin cloth, while he sings a song extolling the virtues of (patrol officer) “Sanders the wise”. And he is made to mouth demeaning dialogue: “My heart has filled with joy whenever I see your king’s face – on little round pieces of silver.”
Stock footage from location in Africa is mixed unconvincingly with most of the clearly studio-bound action. Robeson hoped the accurate recreation of African cultural life would help spread an awareness of the richness and vibrancy of the Negro heritage. But his disappointment with the finished product led to reports that he had made an attempt to buy back the film to prevent its release. Robeson again is given several songs to sing, and these are clearly the highlights of the film.
Interestingly, the copy in the Criterion release is incomplete. In the final episode, Bosambo has helped Sanders calm the fractious natives, and Sanders has appointed him as the new king of the tribes in the area. Bosambo accepts the honour: “I’ve learnt the secret of Government from your lordship … It is this. A king ought not to be feared, but loved by his people …”
When I first saw the film, Sanders gave an irritatingly patronising reply, “That is the secret of the British …” (13) This line has now disappeared. Criterion has advised me that its source for the film was the original fine-grain master positive preserved by Granada, the successor in interest to Korda productions. Other than that, it is a mystery as to where and when the line disappeared. In a way, it is no loss. But it is also very much part of this film as an example of nationalistic British filmmaking of the 1930s, and so its loss is significant.
J. Elder Wills has a longer filmography as an Art Director than as a Director. He directed Paul Robeson in his next two films, Song of Freedom (1936) and Big Fella (1937). His directorial style is most unremarkable. Whole scenes are blocked as if for the theatre. The storylines are minimal and full of contrived developments. Yet both films are very entertaining, and interesting as an indication of where Robeson’s career could have gone. (They are available as a double bill DVD from Kino Video, released in 2000.)
Song of Freedom has a story that fully embodied Robeson’s interests in African cultural heritage and the average working-class man. Johnny Zinga works as a stevedore, ready to burst into song at the drop of a baling hook. A concert impresario hears him and before long he’s a major concert performer! But this new career also leads to an anthropologist identifying a medallion he has always worn as proving that he is a descendant of Queen Zinga (Cornelia Smith), of the island of Casango off the African West Coast. Her son had been taken by slave traders many years ago. With this knowledge, Zinga returns to the island to help his people. Of course, he first has to overcome their superstitious fear.
There are lines in the dialogue that come across as deliberate interpolations, unnatural political or social statements, reflections of 1930s political correctness. The impresario (a most unconvincing, mincing character showing that blacks were not the only victims of stereotype) declares, “What’s the matter of his colour, when there’s colour in his voice.” Robeson has a long speech where he talks about the importance to him of discovering his African heritage. This speech, composed in stilted English, is delivered by Robeson with an almost heart aching sincerity.
And, after one musical performance, Zinga gives a speech:
I hear the voice of my people. There’s a call from the south that shall ring over mountain and sea. They are calling for freedom, and the forests are filled with the whispering sigh of their song. And to the heart of a wanderer there is … [He is interrupted by the strains of “God Save the King”] I know what that song means to these people. Somehow this song means as much to me.” [He is referring to a song he learnt as a baby, and a clue to his native royal ancestry.]
The film allows Robeson to address head on the ideas of African cultural heritage. His character is most comfortable with working-class people. He is even allowed to have a full, (presumably also sexual) relationship with a woman. And, in the short running time, there are about ten songs, including a number that looks as though he’s performing in an operatic version of The Emperor Jones.
At the same time, it is also reinforcing British imperial attitudes, if not as blatantly as in Sanders of the River. African culture may be fine, but Zinga is able to help them out of their superstitions because, “I have learnt much from the people across the sea – their wisdom, their government, their medicine.” And he needs to return to the upper crust world of the London stage each year to perform to earn the money to help his people.
On one level, there is very little to commend in Big Fella. Its story is naïve. Robeson plays Joe, a stevedore (again) on the docks of Marseille who befriends a spoilt runaway boy, Gerald (Eldon Gorst), trying to save him from crooks who only want the reward. The level of sophistication would hardly challenge a 1930s schoolboy reading his weekly Beano. The setting looks like it has been concocted by someone who once saw a film by Marcel Pagnol. There is no effort to explain what a black American is doing in the South of France. Wills’ direction is bland and lumpy, with the same unimaginative grouping of characters in front of the camera that was seen in Song of Freedom.
Yet, it is also effortlessly entertaining. Songs are dropped in at the merest pretext, giving us a chance to enjoy Robeson in several of his “greatest hits”. The cardboard-thinness of the baddies is almost disarming, and the film’s overall naïveté quite winning.
But, perhaps most significant, it is the most “colour blind” of Robeson’s films, the least racist at any level. Just as there is no explanation of how Joe landed up in Marseille far from the “Old Mississippi” that he sings about, there is no remarking at all on his race. He is simply Joe, and no one in the film sees his skin as any more important than the colour of a shirt he may happen to be wearing. The only acknowledgement of his skin occurs in the final moments – a delicious, but perhaps double-edged incident where the baddy gets shanghaied by being put into blackface.
At the same time, Robeson appears to be just less comfortable in scenes with a white woman. There are several scenes with missing boy Gerald’s parents. Robeson seems to be a little less relaxed, and to be edging closer towards the husband, so that daylight can be clearly seen between him and a white woman (no matter how dippy she is as a person.) Perhaps this is an unconscious reflection of years of conditioning in how a Negro needed to act around whites.
This tendency can also be seen in his next film, King Solomon’s Mines (Robert Stevenson, 1937). (It is not part of the Criterion set.) Here, his Umbopa also seems to be edging away from the female lead, Kathleen O’Brien (Anna Lee), so that it can be clearly seen he is not touching her.
Robeson was the top name above the title again in this film, but was given a role of very little importance in the narrative. The white explorers are the real focus. Robeson was presumably attracted by a story that could pay tribute to African native culture, only to find himself in a simple adventure story, with little real interest in Africa except as a backdrop for some rousing escapades where a white man’s more scientific knowledge can save our heroes from superstitious natives. (Yes, it’s the cliché rescue affected by knowing that an eclipse is coming!)
Whether it is his character’s real insignificance in most of the narrative’s development or a growing sense of the artistic triviality of the undertaking, Robeson’s performance seems stiffer and less engaged than in Big Fella. Of course, there are several moments when all action stops for him to sing the several obligatory songs, but they add very little to the overall film.
Actually, much of any vitality in the film comes from Anna Lee, as Kathleen, the brave girl hoping to find her missing adventurer father. Anna Lee married the director of the film the same year. Several years later, they went to Hollywood, where Lee had a long career in films and television. Her most notable role was probably as Bronwyn in How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941). The marriage did not last long, but Stevenson also had a long career as a director of film and television, with many jobs for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-9) and for Walt Disney.
Robeson’s third and final film for 1937 was Jericho (Thornton Freeland). In a somewhat undistinguished directorial career in England and the U.S., about the only other distinguished film in Freeland’s œuvre is Flying Down to Rio (1933), mainly because it was the first teaming of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
In Jericho, Robeson plays the title role, Cpl Jericho Jackson. On a troop ship in World War I, Jericho is able to use his magnificent strength to rescue some troops trapped behind a girder-blocked cabin door after a torpedo hit. But he also has to hit a panic-stricken white officer whose interventions would have made the situation worse. Unfortunately, the blow kills the officer.
Robeson had a degree of control over the content. This is reflected in a speech Jackson makes earnestly to camera:
Did I want to learn how to kill? No. But they taught me till my arms ached with sticking steel into sandbags. These hands that I want to use to heal, to save live, to give life turned into hands for killing.
Shortly after this, Jackson’s face breaks into a big beaming smile when he is given the chance to sing again with his mates. One of the things that did attract Robeson to making films was his appreciation for the way that the cinema could provided a perfect vehicle for his voice
The early episodes on the troop ship and the Army base are generally satisfying. But the second half of the film basically becomes silly, with Jericho finding himself in the desert, after having escaped from arrest. With little trouble, he becomes the leader of a tribe of caravaners. No problem with language, culture and so on. But at least he does have the chance to sing “Deep Desert” and “Shortnin’ Bread”. Robeson seems disengaged from his character as the film moves to an ambiguous ending, crafted to resolve the problem of how the story should treat its hero, when that hero should actually face justice for killing a man.
Robeson did not film again for three years, when he made The Proud Valley (Pen Tennyson, 1940). Tennyson had had a career as Assistant Director in the 1930s, including working (uncredited) on four of Hitchcock’s British films. His short directorial career was cut short when he was killed in plane crash the year after The Proud Valley.
A decade earlier, during the London season of Show Boat, a less politically aware Robeson had spontaneously joined a group of Welsh miners demonstrating in London. This incident is recreated as a climactic event in The Proud Valley. The film included other elements dear to Robeson’s heart: his love of the Welsh, his identification with working people all over the world, and a love of song and of people who also value singing.
Robeson’s character has the wonderful name of David Goliath. Looking for work, he comes upon a Welsh mining village where he is accepted immediately by most of the men. After all, his bass voice would be coveted by any choirmaster! And there is no problem with his colour – as the choir master says to a temporary nay-sayer, “Aren’t we all black down the pit.” Any opposition of course melts away when David sings “All Through the Night”.
Robeson is at ease with his material and his sense of commitment to the material is palpable. At the same time, the capital-labour conflict is resolved somewhat simplistically. It had to be: Britain was at war by the time the film was ready for release. The miners have to be shown to be more patriotic even than the mine owners. After all, they are more than ready to brave the dangers of the pit so that coal can be extracted for the fight against Adolf Hitler.
Robeson is allowed dignity in his role – but there is also a sense that the film cannot go too far into real human relations. The white miners are allowed to have families and girlfriends, but David Goliath is not given a backstory or a relationship with any of the village girls. However, he is allowed to have a glorious death, sacrificing himself for people with families and fiancées.
In September 1939, Robeson returned to the U.S. almost as soon as shooting was completed on The Proud Valley. In November, he was involved in a radio broadcast of a patriotic work, Ballad for Americans. Its mood perfectly matched the times, and its ecstatic reception lifted Robeson to heights of great popularity and esteem across America. Within a decade, he would give an open-air concert that was marred by ugly racist and McCarthyist violence.
His final film projects were two years away, one a matter of pride for Robeson, the other a matter of intense regret for him. Native Land (Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, 1942) is a wonderful example of a classic form of 1930s documentary filmmaking. It is in the tradition of several other great American documentaries, such as The Plow That Broke the Plains (Pare Lorentz, 1936) and Power and the Land (Joris Ivens 1940).
Native Land had been in production for more than five years. Its production company was formed to make non-profit left-wing films. Raising the money for a feature-length project was difficult. Native Land is made up of separate sequences illustrating the theme set out in an opening caption:
Since the founding of our country the American people have had to fight for their freedom in every generation. Native Land is a document of America’s struggle for liberty in recent years. It was in this struggle that the fascist-minded on our own soil were forced to retreat. And the people gained the democratic strength essential for national unity and for victory over the axis.
In one sequence, a farmer who spoke up at a meeting is subsequently attacked. In another, a local grocer who gives credit to factory workers is run out of town by bosses’ cronies. In yet another, a Pastor who raises an issue of political concern in his church is tarred and feathered by the Ku Klux Klan. All incidents were based on actual testimony given to a Senate Committee.
The filmmakers would made a segment and then screen it to various audiences to raise enough money to make the next. Robeson became involved as its narrator and reportedly also contributed heavily to the final costs. The final version reflects this stop-start creation, but its best sequences are very good indeed. Hurwitz and Strand were, not surprisingly, very influenced by the work of Eisenstein and Aleksandr Dovzhenko. This is evident from the opening montage, powerful images of many aspects of America, from its landscape to its industry, edited into a rousing anthem. The photography frequently uses low-angle and high angle shots with a panning camera, in a way that creates a strong emotive sense of identification and pride in an American heritage. Of course, against this emotion, there is even more power in the sequences showing how people taking advantage of American’s supposes democratic freedoms have been attacked, intimidated and killed by vested interests.
Robeson’s contribution is as narrator. This includes several songs. The music is by Marc Blitzstein, who had written the score for The Cradle Will Rock (1937), a work that had had a notorious opening performance after right-wing forces attempted to close the Orson Welles-directed production for the Federal Theatre Project. Robeson took his duties as narrator for the film very seriously, spending weeks rehearsing the narration, balancing the value of every word. His contribution is important in holding the pieces into a whole.
But by the time the film was finished in 1942, America was at war. Audiences did not want to see a film about American fascism when they were fighting overseas fascism. The film had very few screenings. After the war, many of its makers were blacklisted and the film remained unseen. It had missed the chance for its quality material to have an impact. Its revival in the Criterion Box Set is therefore to be welcomed.
Robeson’s final film, Tales of Manhattan, is currently not available on DVD. The story follows the adventures of a dress coat as its passes from owner to owner. Finally, its pockets filled with money, it drops from an aeroplane onto a group of sharecroppers, including those played by Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Paul Robeson. The final film was attacked by many black critics for its demeaning stereotypes of the sharecroppers. Robeson agreed – and at a press conference shortly after the film’s release he joined in the attacks on the film and announced his retirement from filmmaking.
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In the years ahead, Robeson was involved in some more film enterprises, but never as an actor. Usually his contribution was limited, as with Joris Ivens’ Song of the Rivers (1954). Robeson sang its principal song (and translated Bertolt Brecht’s lyrics), with music by Dmitri Shostakovich. During the 1920s and ’30s, he had a very warm friendship with Sergei Eisenstein, and the two had discussed a range of film projects. One of these was to be based on the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of a slave rebellion and revolution in Haitian at the end of the 18th Century. (14)
In the late 1940s, he also announced he was also resting from concerts, so he could work with his people for freedom. During the 1950s, he was frequently attacked in the press and his appearances were often cancelled because of “fear of trouble”. Even at the height of the Cold War, he never forgot the humane way he had been accepted in the Soviet Union and spoke with friendship for that country. His passport was taken from him and he was called before a Congressional Committee. His account of that is a fitting epilogue.
My experiences abroad, in the twelve years (1927-1939) that I made my home in London, brought me to understand that, no matter where else I might travel, my home-ground must be America. That point came up during the Congressional committee hearing when, after I had said that “in Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being – no color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington,” one of the committee members angrily demanded: “Why did you not stay in Russia?”
Because my father was a slave,” I retorted, “and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” (15)
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The Criterion DVD set, titled Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist, includes Body and Soul, Borderline, The Emperor Jones, Sanders of the River, Jericho, The Proud Valley and Native Land. All transfers are impeccable, especially given the problems of source material available. Commentaries are also provided on Body and Soul (by Oscar Micheaux historian Pearl Bowser) and The Emperor Jones (historian Jeffrey C. Stewart.) Additional video material and essays in a 76-page booklet provide the context for viewing this rich heritage.
Song of Freedom and Big Fella are currently available as a single disc from Kino Video as The Paul Robeson Collection. No extras are listed. The edition of these two titles that was used in preparing this review is no longer available. The transfers on this disc are good and suggest that the Kino Video version should have access to good original material as well. King Solomon’s Mines is available from MGM DVD. The disc has no extras and a crisp if over-contrasted transfer. All the above are Region 1 only. Camille can be found on the MK2 release of A Woman in Paris. This release is available in many territories, including Australia, the U.S. and UK. Show Boat and Tales of Manhattan are not currently available on DVD. A number of CDs of performances by Paul Robeson are also generally available, as well as a number of books about him.
Click here to order Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist from
- Paul Robeson, with Lloyd L. Brown, Here I Stand (New York: Othello Associates, 1958), reprinted in 1988 by Beacon Press. In the book, Robeson frequently uses the term “negro”. In recent years, changing attitudes have favoured “black” and “African-American” as acceptable terms. In several of Robeson’s films, the term “nigger” is even used. In Body and Soul, when one character uses the term, she is rebuked: “Don’t say ‘niggah’ mother. It’s vulgar.” In this essay, I will use the term Negro from time to time as reflecting a usage that Robeson was comfortable with.
- Martin Bauml Duberman, Paul Robeson (London, The Bodley Head, 1989), pp. 236-7.
- Ibid, p. 499.
- Speak of Me as I Am, produced and directed by Rachel Hermer, BBC Wales, 1998.
- Robeson, op. cit., p. 11.
- Ibid, p. 15.
- Duberman, op. cit., p. 55.
- Robeson, op. cit., p. 100.
- Duberman, op. cit., p. 130.
- Robeson, op. cit., p. 31.
- Show Boat has undergone many changes due to changing social attitudes, affecting in some cases individual lines in songs or dialogue, or whole plot points. These are explored in the booklet accompanying the EMI CD Show Boat (conducted and directed by John McGlinn, 1988).
- Robeson, op. cit., p. 33.
- Jeffrey Richards, Visions of Yesterday (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 118. This confirms my memory of the scene.
- IMDB.com reports that Danny Glover is set to direct a Hollywood version of this story, with shooting scheduled to start April-May 2007.
- Robeson, p. 48.