The Paul Robeson: Black Star exhibition forms part of the BFI’s Black Star programme. In conversation with ASFF, curator Nathalie Morris discusses Robeson’s place in film history and the social and cultural contrast between the UK and US. Thoughts are shared on the unfolding narrative across the programme of films and looks back at the experience of curating the event.
ASFF: What does Robeson mean to not only Black cinema, but also the past, present and future story of film?
NM: Robeson’s career epitomises many of the dilemmas facing black actors in the first half of the 20th century (and indeed, sadly, beyond). When working within mainstream cinema, like many black actors of the period, he found himself having to make compromises and play roles that presented stereotypes and caricatures. He was frequently disappointed with the films in which he starred. He famously disowned Sanders of the River (1935), an imperialist tale of the British in Africa, and finally quit feature films after Tales of Manhattan (1942) in which he found himself in yet another negative stereotypical role.
But having said this, the films undeniably also demonstrated that a black actor could carry star billing and pull in audiences. His singing played a huge part in this of course. His films always had plenty of musical numbers, and singing was frequently an important element in the plot, as in Song of Freedom (1936), in which he becomes a famous opera singer, and The Proud Valley (1940), in which he joins a Welsh colliery choir. The posters and promotional material that we have on display in Paul Robeson: Black Star make it evident that producers and distributors recognised the figure as an important star commodity. He was even able to use his star power to negotiate some creative control, including final cut approval of Big Fella (1936), a film which is notable for its on-screen depiction of a romantic relationship between a black couple, something that was rare in mainstream cinema at that time.
It’s worth noting that Robeson was also a victim of the terrible blacklisting that destroyed so many lives and careers in post-war America. As an outspoken radical and supporter of the Soviet Union, he was a target for the blacklist. His career and reputation were deliberately destroyed. His recording contracts and concerts got cancelled and his passport was taken away meaning he couldn’t go abroad to work. As a consequence, he’s less well known today than he should be. I hope that the BFI’s focus will go some way towards promoting his work and legacy to today’s audiences.
ASFF: The films being screened comprise: The Proud Valley, Song of Freedom, Jericho, Borderline, Body and Soul, Show Boat, Sanders of the River and King Solomon’s Mines. If we think about Robeson’s onscreen identity, from film to film, what story do these films present to audiences?
NM: The films we’ve been showing on cinema screens and which are available on the BFI Player cover the gamut of Robeson’s film career and are also revealing of his political concerns. They show him working in a variety of different types of cinema. Body & Soul was an independently made film by trailblazing black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. Robeson, in his screen debut, takes on a compelling double role as bogus preacher and an earnest and upstanding young suitor. It’s an absolutely fantastic performance. He really gets his teeth into playing a villain, but he also demonstrates a remarkable ease and naturalness in front of the camera, showing that less is more in terms of silent film screen acting.
Borderline is an entirely different kettle of fish, with Robeson and his wife Eslanda Goode dipping their toes into the avant-garde, in an experimental film which was ground-breaking in its depiction of race and sexuality. Moving into the 1930s, Sanders of the River, King Solomon’s Mines and Jericho show Robeson working in mainstream British cinema, while the Hollywood production of Show Boat sees him reprise the role that made him a star – Joe in the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II musical of the same title.
All of his mainstream films disappointed Robeson to greater or lesser degrees but nevertheless still have many pleasures, not least the bravura singing performances. The films that Robeon was proudest of were Song of Freedom and The Proud Valley. The Proud Valley in particular was especially close to his heart. Since the late 1920s he had shown solidarity with the Welsh miners, and as his politics became increasingly left-wing across the 1930s, he found himself increasingly engaged with their situation. The Proud Valley touches on racism but for the most part is refreshing for the way in which it gives Robeson the opportunity to portray an ordinary working man rather than, for example, the chief of an exoticised African tribe. Whilst Robeson was proud to be black, and was a committed and vocal activist for equal rights, he wanted a world where nobody was treated differently because of their colour. This was one of the reasons he was such a staunch defender of the Soviet Union – he said that there he had been able to walk “in full human dignity” for the first time.
ASFF: How does Robeson’s onscreen identity offer an insight into British culture and society? And can we see Robeson’s highly successful career in British film and theatre as offering a window, through which we can perhaps compare and contrast Britain and America from a cultural and social perspective?
NM: Robeson’s British films of the 1930s say much about attitudes at that time. The shadow of Empire hangs heavy over films like Sanders of the River and King Solomon’s Mines – both adaptations of books by writers from an earlier era. Song of Freedom is a fascinating film. Robeson plays a dock worker who becomes an opera star and then discovers he’s king of a remote African island. I love the first half of the film, but then things take an ideologically dubious turn as Robeson goes to claim his kingdom, and becomes disillusioned by the supposed primitivism of the island and its people. But for all their flaws, Robeson’s British films do show the way in which British audiences accepted and adored Robeson. Although there was still a huge amount of discrimination in Britain when Robeson arrived in the late 1920s, the situation was better than in America, leading to the Robesons making the UK their home for much of the 1930s.
ASFF: How has putting together this exhibition impacted you personally and professionally? And how do you think or rather how do you hope it will resonate with the audience – the majority of who will be likely discovering these films for the first time?
NM: I’ve really enjoyed putting the exhibition together and having the chance to learn more about Paul Robeson. Film was just one small part of this multi-talented man’s life and work, and the more I’ve discovered, the more fascinating I’ve found him as an individual. He was complex and brilliant, but also not perfect – he had many affairs while married to his wife Eslanda, and some say he was naïve or even pig-headed in in his resolute support of the Soviet Union, even as Stalin’s crimes were becoming known. I do hope audiences will respond to Robeson’s film performances and also enjoy seeing some of the posters and other publicity material that were created to promote him and his films.
These really help to give a sense of Robeson’s personality, star status and his impact on audiences at the time. He is such an important figure in film history, and for all their ideological flaws, his films are for the most part, hugely enjoyable to watch. On a final personal note, I can say that I’ve had “Ol” Man River (Robeson’s signature song) stuck in my head for the last three months, and I think it’s going to be there for some time to come…
Paul Robeson: Black Star runs until 22 January in the Mezzanine Gallery at BFI Southbank.
As part of the BFI’s Black Britain on Film project, newly digitised versions of Paul Robeson films are available on BFI Player to audiences across the UK until 31 December.
1. Still from The Proud Valley. Courtesy of BFI Southbank.