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Paul Robeson Film Planned by British Filmmaker Steve McQueen

Paul_Robeson1British filmmaker Steve McQueen will direct a biopic about African American Paul Robeson (1898 – 1976) in the near future. In the 1920s to 1940s, Robeson was a household name as singer, actor and activist known throughout the world. Yet his later life turned tragic and he died in near obscurity. Today, few remember him.

McQueen, whose film “12 Years A Slave” was showered with awards, apparently wished to tackle the topic for many years, but only now has he the necessary support. Certainly Robeson’s life, both public and personal, cries out for a film adaptation. Even 38 years after his death, he still awaits recognition as the cultural giant and social idealist that he truly was.

To many Robeson is associated with the song “Ol’ Man River” from Jerome Kern’s Showboat – the first musical to tackle themes as serious as racism and miscegenation in the Deep South. The role of Joe, a barge worker by the Mississippi, was written for him; he starred in the show in London in 1928. His deep bass voice, the power of his projection were captured in the 1936 film adaptation of Showboat and make an memorable impression.

His prowess as an actor was equally fine. He played Othello with the young English actress Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona in 1930. When he played the role on Broadway some years later, it ran for nearly 300 performances, the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway history.

Perhaps Robeson’s greatest legacy is as civil rights activist – one victimized by his own country for his socialist leanings. Although he was never a member of the American Communist Party, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy shattered his career in the 1950s. In a white man’s world during the Cold War, Robeson was considered a double danger: both black and red.

Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898. He was only the third black student to be accepted by Rutgers University, winning a scholarship in 1915. He was an outstanding athlete there.

After earning a law degree at Columbia University, Robeson began to work for a law firm, but resigned after facing racism within the company. Turning to the stage, encouraged by his wife, Eslanda (Essie), he shot to fame when Eugene O’Neill asked him to star in All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones in 1924. Showboat in London followed four years later. Meanwhile, in 1925, he began his singing career in New York by becoming the first artist to give a recital consisting entirely of Negro spirituals.

Robeson to the USSR several times during the 1930. In Moscow, he said: “Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life… I walk in full human dignity.”

The Robesons returned to the US on the outbreak of the Second World War; and during this era Robeson’s American recognition reached its peak. Critics lauded him as an “artistic and social genius” and “gifted by the gods as musician and actor”. He met President Harry S. Truman to demand anti-lynching legislation, supported the rise of trade unions and campaigned in 1948 for the election of the Progressive Party’s candidate Henry A. Wallace as president.

It was perhaps inevitable that with the onset of the Cold War both Robeson and his wife would be forced to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Defiant, they refused to sign an affidavit declaring they were not communists.

Paul was blacklisted and all doors for work closed to him. Furthermore, his passport was revoked, leaving him unable to travel and his income reduced to a trickle. His voice was known and loved all over the world; he had done nothing illegal; he was never arrested, or put on trial; yet the powers that be were determined to destroy him nonetheless for his political beliefs. For more than 10 years they have persecuted him in every way they could – by slander and mob violence, by denying me the right to practice my profession as an artist, by withholding my right to travel abroad.

Even the great Robeson was not strong enough to withstand the psychological effects of blacklisting. After his passport was restored in 1958, he attempted comeback tours, but severe depressions gripped him.

Most of Robeson’s recorded legacy consists of the Negro spirituals with which he grew up and which he helped to bring to an international audience; plus Showboat, of course, and songs from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, which demands an all-black cast – Robeson briefly played the role of Bess’s boyfriend, Crown, in 1927.

Robeson died in Philadelphia aged 77, reclusive, but largely forgotten. Unable to attend Carnegie Hall’s tribute concert on his 75th birthday, he sent a recorded message, declaring: “I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood.”

Nineteen years after his death, Paul Robeson was finally inducted into the Rutgers College Football Hall of Fame.

About the Author

In 2000, following a long and successful career as head of his own public relations agency, Jim became a freelance travel writer. In 2003 he was named travel editor at New York Trend. Jim travels widely in North America and Europe and has also visited in Asia, Africa, and Central America. He enjoys writing stories that bring alive his travel experience and entice the reader to visit new destinations. Jim is a member of the International Association of Black Travel Writers.