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From the film 
Emperor Jones

Body and Soul, New York, 1924 Oscar Micheaux

Paul Robeson’s film debut was made when he was beginning his New York theater career, starring in plays by  Eugene O’Neill and others. It is one of the few surviving films of the era by Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, whose original themes stood out from the films that were imitative of White cinematic values. He was forced, by censors, to re-edit the film, resulting in an uncertain narrative. In the film, Robeson plays a preacher with a dual personality of virtue and vice, reflecting insight into contradictions in the Black community.

Borderline, Switzerland, 1930, Kenneth McPherson

In a border town somewhere in Europe, two couples—White and Black—intersect with racial values, each other, and the small town in which they find themselves.  Real-life partner Essie Robeson co-starred with Paul in this experimental film which was never shown in public theaters. The filmmaker was most concerned with avant garde film technique and unconventional editing, though one critic who did notice the film noted that in the character portrayal, “Borderline is an attempt...to treat the Negro as a sensitive and intelligent being.”

The Emperor Jones, New York, 1933, United Artists Release

A film adaptation of the original play by Eugene O’Neill starring Robeson, The Emperor Jones presented audiences with an epic story of a Black man’s rise to success and power that was unheard-of in the cinema of the time. That the film’s theme seriously challenged mainstream cinematic taboos is evidenced by the pre-distribution cutting of a controversial scene of challenge to White authority.

Robeson plays Brutus Jones, a young man from the country who gets a chance to see city lights as a Pullman porter. When his train runs take him to Harlem, he is seduced by the nightlife, and transforms into a gambler and womanizer. But after being convicted in the accidental murder of his best friend, he is imprisoned in a southern chain gang. It is amid the depiction of the brutal conditions of the chain gang that the film’s censored scene was lost: Robeson’s character kills a prison guard after defying his order to beat a fellow prisoner. After escaping, Brutus winds up on a small Caribbean island ruled by a Black tyrant.  Through his use of cunning and charisma, Brutus overcomes enslavement, wins the popular support of the island’s people, overthrows and supplants the ruler. He then becomes the Emperor Jones. 

Although some Black critics gently—in deference to Robeson’s great popularity—suggested that the film’s epilogue depicting O’Neill’s themes of the corruption of power discredited Blacks’ screen image, the Emperor Jones was overwhelmingly successful in Harlem, packing the theater with often  standing-room-only crowds. Downtown, it was more modestly received.

Sanders of the River, London, 1935, London Films

Robeson accepted the role of Bosambo during a time when he was living in London and was engaged in deep explorations of the roots of African culture through studies of language and music.  He felt that if he could portray the African leader with cultural accuracy and dignity, he could help audiences— especially Black audiences—to understand and respect the roots of Black culture. The filmmakers even took an unusual step towards authenticity by sending a film crew on a four-month voyage into remote areas of Africa to record traditional African dances and ceremonies. These would be interwoven with the studio scenes.

After the filming, Robeson was asked back to the studio for retakes of some scenes.  He discovered that the film’s message had been twisted during editing; it seems now to justify imperialism. Bosambo was changed from African leader to servile lackey of British colonial rule. Robeson complained, “I was roped into the picture because I wanted to portray the culture of the African people.”  He was so disillusioned by the picture that he attempted, but failed, to buy back all the prints to prevent it from being shown.

Show Boat, Hollywood, 1935, Universal Studios

Paul and Essie Robeson made London their home since Paul opened in the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein stage musical Show Boat. When Robeson was first offered a part in the screen version, he was enjoying the superior intellectual and cultural opportunities of London, and was loath to return to the United States and Hollywood.  But when the studio accepted his purposefully very high fee for the appearance, the Robesons traveled to the States, stopping for several concert performances before spending two months in Hollywood for the filming.

The studio was right to insist on Robeson. Critics raved about the film, and praised Robeson’s singing in particular (notably of the theme song, “Ol’ Man River”) as being worth the cost of the ticket.

Song of Freedom, London, 1936, Hammer-British Lion

Song of Freedom may best represent the opportunity Robeson was looking for to “give a true picture of many aspects of the life of the colored man in the West. Hitherto on the screen, he has been characterized or presented only as a comedy character. This film shows him as a real man.” As in Sanders of the River, the film called for documentary scenes of West African traditional dances and ceremonies, but  this time Robeson obtained a contract giving him final cut, so that the film’s message would not be changed behind the doors of the editing room.

Robeson plays Zinga, a black dockworker in England with a great baritone singing voice. He is discovered by an opera impresario, and is catapulted into great fame as an international opera star. Yet he feels alienated from his African past, and out of place in England. By chance, he is informed that an ancestral medallion that he wears is proof of his lineage to African kings, and he leaves fame and fortune to take his rightful place of royalty.  Reunited with his people, he plans to improve their lives by combining the best of western technology with the best of traditional African ways.

Although the film was not a box office success in the US, it was notably chosen in 1950 to open the convention of Ghana’s People’s Party. The ceremonies were presided over by the future first prime minister of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, Robeson’s friend from his London years.

Africa Looks Up, (released as My Song Goes Forth), United Kingdom, 1936  

Robeson does not appear on screen but recorded the prologue and theme song for Joseph Best’s documentary film about South Africa.

King Solomon’s Mines, London/South Africa, 1937 Gaumont-British

In this film based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard, Robeson again plays a character who discovers his true identity as a displaced African king. He returns to Africa and struggles to overcome the mistrust of his people. Robeson was attracted by the storyline and the real life scenes from Africa that would be incorporated in the production. He was even tutored in the Efik language to prepare for his role. Although the critics did not rave over King Solomon’s Mines, with many complaining it was over-romanticized, the Black press noted Robeson’s influence in correcting the film where it tended to veer into the usual African stereotypes.

Jericho (Dark Sands), London / Egypt, 1937, Capitol Films

Robeson considered Jericho one of his most positive accomplishments in projecting a screen image of a Black man with courage, honor, self-sacrifice and intelligence who achieves success and happiness.  The epic film begins as a World War I American troop ship is torpedoed, and many soldiers are trapped below the deck. Robeson plays Jericho Jackson, a medical student drafted into the war.  Jericho heroically saves the trapped men, in defiance of his superior’s orders to abandon ship, but he accidentally kills the officer in the melee. Despite his heroism, Jericho is court-martialed for refusing an order. Embittered, he escapes, and an officer named Captain Mack is held responsible for his escape and court-martialed.

Jericho ends up in North Africa, where he meets the Tuareg people. When he uses his medical skills to heal the sick, the Tuareg welcome Jericho into their tribe, and he marries and raises a family with them, eventually becoming their leader. He leads his people to victory over rivals and brings peace and unity to the region through which the Tuareg trek annually to trade for salt. When an anthropology film crew’s coverage of the salt trek is shown in London, Captain Mack spots Jericho in the film and vows to track him down.  Finally, when the Captain sees what good works Jericho has done for his people, he relents.

It is telling of Robeson’s demand for final cut that at this point in the story, Jericho, homesick, was to agree to help clear the captain’s name in the United States. After their plane crashes in the desert, Jericho dies trying to save Captain Mack. Instead, Robeson simply had the movie end with the captain flying off alone and crashing in the desert.

Big Fella, London, 1938, British Lion Studios

Based on the novel Banjo by Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, Big Fella is set on the docks and streets of Marseilles, France. Robeson stars in the leading role, as a street-wise but honest dockworker who struggles with deep issues of integrity and human values. Elizabeth Welch plays opposite him as a café singer in love with him. Robeson’s wife, Eslanda Robeson, appears as the café owner. The movie received high praise, particularly for the music, featuring Robeson and Welch, and the depth of character that Robeson achieved in his portrayal of Banjo.

Proud Valley, Wales, 1939, Ealing Studios

Filmed on location in the heart of the coal mining region of Wales, Proud Valley documents the hard realities of Welsh coal miners’ lives. Robeson’s part is based on the real-life adventures of a Black miner from West Virginia who drifts to Wales by way of England, searching for work. After two years of refusing offers from major studios, Robeson saw an opportunity, when he agreed to appear in this independent production, to strive to “depict the Negro as he really is—not the caricature he is always represented to be on the screen.”

With Proud Valley, he may have best succeeded in that aim. His character, David Goliath, initially wins the respect of the very musically oriented Welsh people through his singing (as did Robeson in real life). He shares the hardships of their lives, and becomes a working class hero as he helps to better their working conditions and ultimately, during a mining accident, sacrifices his life to save fellow miners.

In Proud Valley, Robeson depicts a kind Black hero never seen in Hollywood, one who fuses his political and artistic sensibilities in the image of a Black working man who achieves kinship across boundaries of race and nationality. Years later, Robeson would remark that, of all his films, this was his favorite because it showed workers in a positive light.

Native Land, Frontier Films, New York, 1942

With Robeson not appearing on screen but singing and narrating off-screen, this combination of a documentary format and staged reenactments depicts the struggle for human rights in the 1930s against those who would deny them----the captains of industry and their hired goons and strikebreakers, and the Ku Klux Klan. It is based on the findings of the LaFollette-Thomas Senate Civil Liberties Committee’s 1938 investigation of the repression of labor organizing.

Tales of Manhattan, Hollywood, 1942. 20th Century Fox

Robeson’s final attempt to work within Hollywood after refusing lucrative film offers for three years, Tales of Manhattan starred some of the biggest names in Hollywood. The plot centers on an overcoat stuffed with thousands of dollars, and the impact it has on the lives of people who come to possess it. The overcoat is eventually discovered by a southern sharecropper and his wife, played by Robeson and Ethel Waters. Robeson’s character argues that the money should be used to build economic independence for the community, while a scheming preacher undermines his efforts.

Robeson was deeply disappointed with the film. Although he attempted to change some of the film’s content during production, in the end he found it “very offensive to my people. It makes the Negro childlike and innocent and is in the old plantation tradition.”  Some reviewers noted that the film exposed Blacks’ living conditions under the sharecropping system, but Robeson was so dissatisfied that he attempted to buy up all the prints and take the film out of distribution. Following its release, he held a press conference, announcing that he would no longer act in Hollywood films because of the demeaning roles available to Black actors.

Documentaries:

"Paul Robeson: Here I Stand," a new 2-hour documentary, premiered on PBS on February 24, 1999.

“Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist,” 29-minute documentary, narrated by Sidney Poitier, made in 1979, won Academy Award OSCAR for Best Documentary (Short Subjects).

“The Tallest Tree in Our Forest,” 1977 documentary on Robeson’s life, b&w and color, 86 min., written, produced and narrated by Gil Nobel.


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