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I Don't Think We Talk Enough About Paul Robeson (And What He Brought To The Film Industry)

 Paul Robeson in Show Boat.
Paul Robeson in Show Boat.

Everybody talks about Sidney Poitier’s movies, and for good reason. Mr. Poitier did a fantastic job of elevating the image of the Black American back in a period of great civil unrest. He was also the first Black man to ever win Best Actor at the Academy Awards for his performance in Lilies of the Fields. So, yeah, we all love Sidney Poitier. Sidney Poitier is goated, no question.

But do you know who I don’t think people talk nearly enough about these days? Paul Robeson. Being a Rutgers-Newark alum, I know a great deal about the man, as Rutgers loves Paul Robeson. He was actually the first Black football player at Rutgers University all the way back in 1915.

Yep, Paul Robeson was a true Renaissance man. And I’m not talking of the Disney variety. Besides being a stellar athlete, he was also an accomplished singer, a stage and film actor, a scholar, and also an activist (His activism actually got him into a lot of trouble as he was often viewed as a Communist). Though I could focus on many aspects of Paul Robeson’s life, I’m going to focus on his career in the film industry, and why more people should talk about it these days.

Paul Robeson in Body and Soul
Paul Robeson in Body and Soul

Body And Soul Saw Robeson Working With A Black Director All The Way Back In The 1920s

In my article on the passing of Richard Roundtree and his portrayal as Shaft, I spent a whole section discussing how Shaft’s director, Gordon Parks, was just as instrumental to the character as Richard Roundtree himself. Gordon Parks, who was also a Black man, helped spearhead the blaxploitation movement of the 1970s, which has seen a bit of an uptick as of late with movies like They Cloned Tyrone.

I bring all of this up because when it comes to the OG Black film director, that would actually be Oscar Micheaux. Mr. Micheaux is noted as being the first Black director to ever make a feature length film, that film being The Homesteader. Unfortunately, The Homesteader is lost to time, but it came out all the way back in 1919, which is actually kind of crazy when you think about it.

In fact, many of Micheaux’s movies are now lost films, but one that thankfully survived was 1925’s Body and Soul, which features Paul Robeson in two roles, one as a prisoner who pretends to be a reverend, and the other as his long-estranged twin brother. The film has a The Night of the Hunter-vibe to it (and I’m not the first person to make that comparison), but the ending is a bit of a cop out, if you ask me.

But, all the same, we definitely wouldn’t have groundbreaking directors like Jordan Peele making movies and TV shows today, if we didn’t have groundbreaking directors like Oscar Micheaux working with skilled actors like Paul Robeson in the past.

A scene from Borderline
A scene from Borderline

Borderline Featured Robeson In A Movie About Interracial Relationships Some 37 Years Prior To Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner

I know nobody is bringing up Sidney Poitier but myself at this point, but I think it’s important to recognize that even though Poitier kind of broke boundaries by starring in a movie about interracial relationships all the way back in 1967, Robeson was in a film about this very topic all the way back in 1930! However, unlike Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is lighthearted, Borderline is very much not a comedy.

In fact, Robeson actually plays a cuckold in the film, as his wife in the movie (played by his real-life wife, Eslanda Goode Robeson) cheats on him with a white man named Thorne, and then Thorne’s wife, jealous of the affair (with a Black woman, no less), seeks revenge…against her husband!

And again, this movie came out in 1930! The film was lost for a long time and was thought to be gone forever, but was later found in Switzerland, of all places, back in 1983. The fact that a movie like this even exists back then blows my mind, and the fact that Robeson and his wife chose to be in a movie with such a taboo topic is kind of mind boggling, given the circumstances.

Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones
Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones Saw Robeson As The Lead In A Famous Eugene O’Neill Story

Nowadays, when people discuss Eugene O’Neill, they usually bring up plays like The Iceman Cometh, or Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and those are definitely fine stories. But the very first play I ever read by Eugene O’Neill was The Emperor Jones, and man, was that an introduction.

The story of a Black man who kills another Black man in a dice game, and then escapes to an island where he proclaims himself king, was one of the strangest plays I’d ever read at the time -- Mind you, I was also in the midst of reading August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, as a counter viewpoint of the Black experience.

And the movie version of The Emperor Jones, starring Robeson (he also starred in the play at one point), is also very interesting. The film follows many of the same story beats as the source material, but adds additional elements not seen in the play that gives its protagonist, Brutus Jones, more of a background history. The movie is a fascinating look at a multifaceted character that really shows off Robeson's acting chops as a leading man.

A colorized version of Song of Freedom
A colorized version of Song of Freedom

Song Of Freedom Displayed Robeson’s Amazing Voice, As He Was Multi-talented

Song of Freedom (not to be confused with the child-trafficking movie, Sound of Freedom) is about a dock worker who is discovered for his amazing baritone voice, and later becomes famous for it. But, he doesn’t feel right in England, due to a longing sense of his connection to Africa, only to learn that he’s actually of royal African descent. In learning this, he decides to leave fame behind and be with his people in the motherland.  

Honestly, the plot takes a few mental leaps, and overall, it’s an okay story, but the true star here is Robeson’s deep baritone singing throughout. Robeson, who, as I mentioned in the intro, was multi-talented, really carries the film with his singing. In the end, it just goes to show that Roberson could make any story interesting, just with his sheer presence alone.

The coal miners in The Proud Valley
The coal miners in The Proud Valley

The Proud Valley Featured Robeson As A Black Hero That Wasn’t Often Seen In The ‘40s

Speaking of Paul Robeson’s voice, that would be a good segue into The Proud Valley, which is about coal miners in Wales. In the film, Robeson’s character is embraced by the Welsh community due to his beautiful voice, but he then bands with the coal miners in the area and works with them, as they are all just struggling to get by.

I mentioned up top that Robeson was believed to be a Communist, but he considered himself more of a Socialist and was a huge believer of the working class. Paul Robeson is said to have been very proud of the film, and the idea of the white miners bonding with Robeson, as they were “all black down in the pit” makes for an interesting watch.

Rita Hayworth in Tales of Manhattan
Rita Hayworth in Tales of Manhattan

Tales Of Manhattan Showed Robeson Could Share A Poster With Huge Stars Of The Era

Lastly, I want to talk about Robeson’s final acting film role, that being the anthology film, Tales of Manhattan. The story of a traveling tailcoat (I’m serious), the film stars vignettes with the likes of Edward G. Robinson, Rita Hayworth, Henry Fonda, and many others. What’s notable about this film (besides it being Robeson’s final film performance) is that his name is up there with all the others in the title sequence.

Unfortunately, Robeson doesn’t come in until the very end of the film, and his sequence isn’t all that memorable. But the fact that he would be in such a movie with so many notable figures is definitely impressive, given the era.

And those are just some of the films starring Paul Robeson that I think should get more attention. Robeson would later be blacklisted, and traveled to Moscow, and there’s plenty of information regarding his bouts with McCarthyism. But I just thought I’d focus on the film side of the man. So, I hope this was informative.