Paul Robeson was a fighter against war and oppression, a supporter of the Communist Party and much more.
When Robeson sang to frontline Spanish Republican troops fighting the fascist General Franco, loudspeakers were hoisted and the shooting stopped as both sides listened.
The US authorities later declared Robeson “public enemy number one” and took his passport to prevent him travelling. This didn’t stop thousands of people packing a theatre in Wales to hear him sing down the telephone.
Robeson’s film career was a small and sadly underdeveloped component of his rich and inspiring life. He tried, often in vain, to find dignified roles for a black man in both US and British film.
A newly released box set which includes five of the 11 films Robeson made – Body and Soul, Big Fella, Sanders of the River, Song of Freedom and King Solomon’s Mines – shows both the successes and failures of those attempts.
Body and Soul is a remarkable film with an all black cast. When it was made, black actors were hardly allowed on screen, even as maids or the oafish comic relief they were to be condemned to from the 1930s onwards.
Robeson radiates the charm and dangerous ferocity of a master conman. Like his singing, Robeson’s acting has stature.
In Body and Soul, Robeson plays two characters – the saintly Sylvester Jenkins and his venal brother the “Reverend” Isaiah, who wows the church ladies with his oratory, then rapes their daughters and makes off with his victims’ savings in a Bible.
It is an over the top silent melodrama. While the contradictions are a bit obvious, its uniqueness stands out.
Robeson attempted to be careful about the roles he chose because he wanted to create screen images that would give strength and uplift people.
He said, “I feel that my work has a farther reach than its artistic appeal. I consider it a social weapon.”
The stifling limitations of black character possibilities in the US led Robeson to make films in England where colonial attitudes of incorporation rather than segregation dominated. One consequence was that Robeson’s British films all show integration.
Song of Freedom is probably the first example of openly expressed black and African pride in an English language film.
Robeson plays a dock worker who is discovered by a European opera impresario. First hesitant to try his hand at singing for a living, he soon sees it as a way to travel and discover his roots.
He travels to the African island of Casanga and declares he is their long lost king.
After a few tribulations Robeson sings and they accept him.
Robeson had hoped this film would dispel myths about African people being backwards and stupid.
There are a few moments in the film which do just that. For instance, the movie contains nightmarish images of the slave trade. But the film is imbued with endorsement of British colonialism.
Big Fella finds Robeson again in the docks, this time in France.
The black and white dock workers look for a kidnapped child. But the child wasn’t kidnapped – he ran away to escape the stifling environment of his English upper class life. Robeson quickly becomes a surrogate parent.
Sanders of the River is an unwavering celebration of British colonial rule, dedicated to the “handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency”.
Robeson rightly disowned it, as its only redeeming feature is Robeson himself.
In King Solomon’s Mines at least Africa looks like the continent, rather than outer London. However, though Robeson’s role is a more charismatic and less stereotypical than in Sanders of the River, other Africans are portrayed as little more than exotic primitives.
Paul Robeson Jr describes the film in his biography of his father, The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, as, “A straight adventure film with no political overtones and minimal stereotypes... a bit like Sanders of the River without the pro-imperialist slant and with fewer loincloths.”
Robeson made other movies, but this collection sums up the problems with the films he made.
Robeson wanted to make a film which would “interpret fully the spirit of the negro race”.
The black revolutionary Marxist CLR James wrote a play about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the slave rebellion in Haiti.
Robeson and Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein tried to make this into a film but both Russian dictator Joseph Stalin and Hollywood said no.
Perhaps if it had come off Robeson would have been in a film big enough for his talent.
The Paul Robeson Collection (Network) is available for £39.99