America is currently in the thralls of Black Panther mania, and rightfully so — just take a look at the hashtag #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe if you have any doubt as to the importance of representation. The film holds social and political importance because, according to fastidious number cruncher Adam B. Vary, the highest grossing movie with a majority black cast ranks #296 on the all-time box office charts. This bright present points to a promising future worth celebrating, but away from the multiplex, FilmStruck is celebrating the rich, largely unheralded history of blacks on screen with a double feature spotlighting the work of actor and trailblazer Paul Robeson.
In recent years, there’s been a noted effort in the cinephile community to expand the canon beyond films by and about white men. Though primarily only visible to mainstream audiences as slaves, domestic workers or other peripheral roles, black Americans made many contributions to the cinema in the silent and early sound era. (Netflix currently hosts “Pioneers of African-American Cinema,” a 20-film collection compiled by Kino Lorber, on its streaming site.) The public imagination seems to grow every year, yet it still accommodates little room for those before the Civil Rights era. The 1930s gave the world more than just Hattie McDaniel winning an Oscar for her controversial Mammy role in Gone with the Wind. It also gave us Paul Robeson, one of the first and most prominent actors who provided an exemplar of dignity and respect for blacks on screen.
FilmStruck’s most recent Tuesday Short + Feature combination takes a fascinating two-pronged approach to making the case for why Robeson deserves recognition this Black History Month. (In fairness, the pairing was first created by The Criterion Collection when they put together their box set “Paul Robeson: Portraits of an Artist.”) I started with Saul J. Turrell’s Academy Award-winning documentary short, 1979’s Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist, since I admittedly knew little about the man or his artistry. History Channel, this most assuredly is not.
Turrell structures his portrait of Robeson around the evolution of his signature song, “Old Man River,” from the musical and eventual movie Show Boat. It’s important to grapple with this tune, which is the first song in the first work that is commonly recognized today as musical theater. The first word is a racial slur. Musical theater, a quintessentially American art form, bears traces of our national original sin of racism. The medium draws its roots from operettas and musical comedies but also the shameful tradition of minstrelsy.
Though Robeson hardly emerged from nowhere, Show Boat was a major breakthrough for him as a performer. While he did not originate the role of Joe, he quickly put his stamp on it by convincing lyricist Oscar Hammerstein to change the N-word in “Old Man River” to “darkie.” The song continued to evolve both in form and interpretation as Robeson traveled the world, seeing the great European cultures and understanding that American racism and prejudice were not the default setting for much of the world. As Turrell observes, “Old Man River” became a song of protest rather than a song of lament for Robeson. Working within a framework that some might consider insensitive or offensive, Robeson simply dared to show dignity and humanity. His booming voice and imposing physical stature made those things impossible to ignore for many people unaccustomed to granting such respect to black men.
It’s interesting that Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist is narrated by none other than Sidney Poitier, the first black male actor to win an Academy Award. Robeson no doubt helped lay the groundwork that made Poitier’s on-screen career possible. But ask a random group of people and they’re far more likely to recognize Poitier’s name than Robeson, due in large part to the latter’s tragic career end. Poitier fit the demands of the time, playing roles that did not upset the traditional white-dominated hierarchy of the country. His off-screen presence was deeply political, but his on-screen performances in the 60s and 70s were largely unthreatening. Robeson’s work began to reflect his values, and he paid a price for it.
Not even being the first black actor to play the part of Othello on Broadway, a role traditionally played by white men in blackface, could shield Robeson from the fire and fury of the United States government. His growing leftist sympathies and support for communist causes led to the blocking of his passport by the State Department, which declared that his travels would not be productive to the interests of the country. Robeson essentially lived for a decade in exile, essentially blacklisted until a Supreme Court case returned his passport. But the damage to his career was done.
Thankfully, the relative permanence of the filmed performance allows us to take in Robeson’s eminence. 1933’s The Emperor Jones is bundled with the FilmStruck documentary and proves to be a great way to appreciate his considerable talents. Director Dudley Murphy takes a Eugene O’Neill play and translates it to the screen largely by carbon copy. This was still the early days of sound, and many directors viewed the new cinematic capability as a mechanism for creating filmed theater. Murphy and screenwriter DuBose Heyward do not quite manage to find the visual language to make a largely soliloquy-driven play all that interesting. The raw, transfixing power of a performer alone on stage cannot simply be replicated onto celluloid. It requires a separate vocabulary altogether. Still, Robeson’s presence more than holds on screen.
Robeson’s character Brutus Jones, a Pullman Porter turned wrongful convict turned Caribbean island dictator (a progression that’s better watched than explained), ends the film with a full-scale mental breakdown that boils down to him, alone in the jungle, dealing with the manifestations of his demons. But somehow that’s not even the most interesting part of the movie. That distinction belongs to the scene where he escapes a chain gang by conking the white supervisor over the head with a shovel. It’s fascinating because there is absolutely no visual indication that Jones actually hits his oppressor — no sound, no image, no reaction. All the dots are there for the audience to connect intellectually, but there’s no emotional release valve. The lack of any depiction of black-on-white violence is startling for a story that literally relies on it to move the plot but, then again, that’s hardly surprising in a country where critics predicted such imagery would incite race riots as recently as the 1989 release of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
As both a man and an artist, Paul Robeson deserves more recognition in 2018 and beyond. FilmStruck’s Short + Feature pairing should provide momentum, but hopefully that Steve McQueen-helmed biopic currently stuck in development (per IMDb) gets rolling soon.
Watch ‘Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist’ and ‘The Emperor Jones’ at FilmStruck.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).