A stage actor and social activist, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) became a movie star when there was no such thing as a Black leading man. During the 1930s he increased his political agenda and later his outspoken civil rights speeches and leftist views caused him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era. While the backlash of his civil rights activities didn’t help his career (he made eleven starring film performances) he remained a symbol of racial consciousness. His Deep Bass voice, a trademark, made him also a praised singer and he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998; An All-American athlete as well, prior to his acting career, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995
A Five film Sample:
Borderline (1930, Dir: Kenneth Macpherson)
A black woman is having an affair with a white man. She and the man in her life (Robeson) soon face the towns-folk’s prejudice.
Borderline, a silent film, is the sole feature of British film theorist Kenneth Macpherson. As written on the Criterion DVD liner notes: “the film boldly blends Eisensteinian montage and domestic melodrama”. It is actually a great way to describe it. Very well shot with great unsettling editing instants. Acting is very staged, but it serves the purpose. A fine new score accompaniment is provided by jazz recording artist and composer Courtney Pine.
Emperor Jones (1933, Dir: Dudley Murphy)
In this drama, unscrupulous and ambitious Brutus Jones escapes from jail and finds himself the emperor of a Caribbean island.
Robeson’s breakthrough is the big-screen adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play which made him famous for his portrayal of Jones in the 1924 stage version. Being his first talkie, the booming voice and landmark Baritone singing of his were finally heard. He was also the first African-American leading man in mainstream movies. Emperor Jones is a fair drama, a bit talkative as it was the beginning of a new era: the movie sound. It is also filled with some odd, but quite interesting, camera moves and editing cuts.
Robeson said of the experience that it made him understand cinema’s potential to change racial misconceptions.
Song of Freedom (1936, Dir: J. Elder Wills)
A British dockworker becoming a successful singer learns that he is the rightful king of the African island of Casanga…
An early Hammer Film Productions prior to their successful horror Days, Song of freedom is a well made, if talkative, melodrama. Again, Robeson presence and musical talent are put at good use, even though it’s not the best film he’s in.
Big Fella (1937, Dir: J. Elder Wills)
In this light musical comedy, Robeson is a Marseilles docker hired by a wealthy English couple to find their missing son. When Joe finds him, he realizes the boy actually ran away and he takes him under his wing.
The whole show feels slightly like matinee material and simple minded but Robeson is all over screen with some pleasant singing sequences involving his great voice. An overall honest, if pedestrian, portrayal of a group of sympathetic characters.
The Proud Valley (1940, Dir: Pen Tennysn)
An American sailor joins a Welsh miners community entering the local Choral and the various fights over a period of austerity, when a pit disaster threatens.
This effective melodrama offers a beautiful glimpse of Welsh life, shows an insight of minors work and the choral groups linked to the said work, very significant to the culture, place and period it depicts. Paul Robeson puts his gentle giant presence and singing at good use. At this point, Robeson had given up more lucrative work to participate in more socially progressive films. He became personally involved in civil rights affairs, notably with the Welsh miners.