Paul Robeson: Showing a Little Grit

Today, Paul Robeson seems impossible. How could one man have accomplished so much, commanded such respect, be so large and legendary, even during his lifetime?

I have never separated my work as an artist and my work as a human being. I have always put it even more strongly, that to me, my art is always a weapon.

-- Paul Robeson, Pacifica Radio interview (1958)

He defined social responsibility, and above all, he defined artistic responsibility.

-- Ruby Dee, Our Paul: Remembering Paul Robeson

Trouble is my buddy.

-- Brutus Jones (Paul Robeson), The Emperor Jones

Today, Paul Robeson seems impossible. How could one man have accomplished so much, commanded such respect, be so large and legendary, even during his lifetime (1898–1976)? It sounds reductive to attribute his success to genius, too easy to call him destined for greatness. Even if they might be true, such stories leave out the sheer will it must have taken for Robeson, son of a runaway slave, to find himself in so many ways, and even more to the point, to make himself known -- boldly, bravely, and magnificently.

Criterion's new box set, Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist, offers multiple introductions to Robeson's work, starting with new digital transfers of eight films (he appeared in 11 during his lifetime). These range from Oscar Micheaux's 1925 silent film Body and Soul and Sanders of the River (Zoltan Korda, 1935), to the jazzily fragmented fiercely forward-looking Borderline (Kenneth Macpherson, 1930) and the socialist pro-union documentary he narrated, Native Land (Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, 1942), to a thoughtful, still defiant 1958 Pacifica Radio interview. In every performance, he refused to accept conventions and expanded options. This at a time when "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks", in Donald Bogle's famous phrasing, were the common opportunities for black film actors.

A scene from Body and Soul

Most certainly, Robeson demonstrated remarkable dignity and challenged expectations. As Sidney Poitier says in the Oscar-winning short documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (Saul J. Turell, 1979), "No one who has ever heard Paul Robeson sing "Old Man River" will ever forget it." True, but he sang it many times and in multiple contexts. Poitier observes that when he performed the song during WWII, he turned it "from a song of lament into a song of political protest", altering the lyrics to point out institutional racism and injustice, at least for those listeners paying attention (for example, "Git a little drunk,/An' you land in jail", for example, becomes "You show a little grit and/You lands in jail").

In Robeson on Robeson, the artist's son Paul Robeson Jr. observes similarly that his father regularly made subtle assessments of contexts, using the n-word, for example, for his role as Brutus Jones on stage, but adjusting language and performance in order to "reflect the culture of the ethnic group he comes from" rather than appease particular communities, including those Robeson Jr. terms "assimilated". For Robeson Sr., Brutus Jones was "a full human being, though flawed, villain, stereotype, whatever." He was certainly familiar with stereotypes by the time he brought Brutus Jones to the screen in 1933. He made his film start in silents, notably Body and Soul (1925), as both the lascivious Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins and his good brother Sylvester. As observed by Micheaux scholar Pearl Bowser for the DVD commentary track, the film was "very immediate, developed... around issues that were very present in the community." These included class and gender inequities, as well as corruption, deceit, and desire within a church community ("There's lots of biography on Micheaux," Bowser says, and he had "reasons for detesting ministers").

The film, one of the few in this collection that have been previously available on DVD, is notable especially for such themes, as Micheaux was developing a visual language and Robeson a reputation as a youthful, energetic performer. As collaborators in this early "race movie", the two built an image of community, even as the film also offers a critique of what can go wrong in such an enterprise. Micheaux's films, says Bowser, as a visible "circle" motif appears on screen, "begin by critiquing the community... and he ends with this statement about the community, those individuals who are doing things for the group."

In pursuit of community, Robeson took on a range of projects, including the rarely seen Borderline, an "experimental" film that mixed Eisensteinian montage and broad melodrama. Starring Robeson and his wife Eslanda, as well as the poet H.D., the movie explores the social threats posed by interracial relationships, not to mention a not-so-subtextual homoerotic charge between Robeson's Pete (paired officially with Eslanda's mulatta Adah) and Thorne (Gavin Arthur), who has an affair with Adah. A vivid murder scene is set against repeated emotional displays, all made jaggedy by skewed angles and abrupt editing. The innovative form reflects the content and vice versa, as Borderline examines the many meanings of its title.

Robson in Emperor Jones

His work and full life in England never dampened Robeson's commitment to the idea and practice of community in the US (He made five more films in Britain, two included here: Jericho [Thornton Freeland, 1937] and a Welsh coal mining drama, The Proud Valley [Pen Tennyson, 1940], in which Robeson selflessly blows himself up in order to save his white fellows.) He was, says Paul Robeson Jr. (in Robeson on Robeson, recorded in 1976) well aware of the opportunity that came with talking films: "He foresaw that this was going to be his medium, primarily because of his voice." (His voice, of course, was remarkable; filmmaker William Greaves recalls here that "all the black actors" wanted to speak like Robeson.) He determined to use his voice, says, Jr., to "engender in people of color everywhere a cultural pride, that is, we are an ethnic group, not just some race." On occasion, this pride came in the form of undermining a status quo, as when, Jr. asserts with visible delight, Robeson worked a line in The Emperor Jones -- in which Brutus threatens to "kill another white man", namely, the weasely Smithers (Dudley Digges) -- so that a black audience "goes nuts", even as white viewers might read him as a joke or defanged stereotype.

The Criterion DVD of Emperor Jones comes with outstanding commentary by historian Jeffrey Stewart -- wry, analytical, and original. Stewart notes the film's presentation of the primitive "Negro", whether by "African" drums or a Stateside Christian ("assimilated", adds Stewart) congregation. As much as Brutus Jones exemplifies his name -- arrogant, brutish, ambitious -- he represents what Stewart calls "standard modernist fare, except for one thing: he is a black man." Brutus' migration north (his "escape from Jim Crow" and ostensible "liberation") takes him into a world of motion. A Pullman porter, he rises to the middle class, befriends his eventual opponent, Jeff (Frank Wilson), and seeks the affections of beautiful women (the possibility of white women travelers' attractions to black porters hangs here, notes Stewart, in a manner "teasingly subversive").

Brutus' aggression and ambition carry him far beyond Chicago, when he's arrested for murder, committed to a chain gang (here, the shirtless Robeson swings a sledgehammer while singing "John Henry" and "Waterboy", both songs that Stewart identifies as resistant in context), and eventually, after killing a white guard (a shot excised from the theatrical release and here, judged too inflammatory), he escapes to Haiti. No matter where he goes, however, Brutus is alone and thus, distrustful and edgy. As Stewart argues, "He is the quintessential modernist who accepts is fate even as he resists his circumstances and the reality that he never fits in anywhere no matter where he is." When he eventually becomes an "emperor" (based on the historical Henri Christophe [1767-1820], a former slave who became president of northern Haiti in 1807 and its self-proclaimed king in 1811), Brutus is all but lost. Delusional and broken, he pays a dire price. Still, as Stewart eloquently puts it, "O'Neill found in the black Adam a metaphor for all humanity who, like Adam after the fall, can never go home again." And Robeson found a way to make that "black Adam" even more complex, a vulnerable and sympathetic figure.

From the outset of his career, Robeson's image overstepped familiar categories, appealing to different groups for different reasons. He "created enormous impressions," says James Earl Jones in Our Paul: Remembering Paul Robeson, one of four new video programs included in the Criterion set. When Robeson appears on screen, Jones goes on, "You expect something, sometimes it's scary, sometimes very attractive." And most often it was both at once. His size and beauty exacerbated by the screen, Robeson embraced complexities. Robeson Jr. assesses his dad's provocations: "He gambled that by force of his personality... the image that he would create would outweigh the stereotypes. It's for the audience to judge whether he succeeds."

Yes and no. Robeson had his own measure of success, even if he wasn't much interested, according to Jr., in the particulars of acting. "Was he technically a great film actor? No," Jr. answers his own question. "He didn't care about that. He was interested in the impact on an audience. His vision of what he did in film, overall he's proud of the record, he felt he projected a black male image of power and dignity and cultural integrity never equaled before or after in American or Western film."

Robeson in Sanders River

Famously righteous, brilliant, and committed to social justice, Robeson was also astute with regard to his own effects, potential and actual. As Deborah Willis writes in "Constructing an Image" (one of several exceptional essays in a booklet compiled by Criterion), the actor took on the image. When, in Sanders of the River, he "subjects himself to a Western interpretation of African masculinity," he also resists, "enact[ing] the inherent crisis in his work." He hated the film and, five years after its release, made another, Jericho, of which he was proud, in which he played a World War I corporal and medic, generous, troubled, and resilient. Willis observes that Robeson "escapes, contorts, appropriates or falls victim to dominant racist discourse", and in so doing creates his own elusive, potent image.

The Criterion set includes multiple permutations of this image, in movies and memories by those who knew him or have studied him. Robeson embodies promise as much as power, the effort to see both within and beyond limits. As his baritone on "Deep River" sounds beneath her interview in Our Paul, Ruby Dee lovingly notes that he "exemplified so much of what the world is still looking for: how do we get along with each other? How do we stop these wars? How do we universalize love? I think that Robeson said that loudest of all."

Consider his narration for Native Land, a documentary comprised of news footage and recreations of union and farmer protests and civil rights violations by corporate goons. With stunning cinematography by co-director Strand, the film is a gorgeous assembly of image and commentary, at once moving and aesthetically dazzling. William Greaves says Robeson wanted to put his "skills as a thinker at the service of the progressive movement in America. He was determined to use his celebrity as a mechanism for transmitting information on the American creed."

Given how hard Robeson worked to realize the best possibilities of that "creed," it is no small irony that, owing to his association with Soviet ideology and leaders (like many American intellectuals at the time), he was blacklisted in the US and stripped of his passport in 1950. Eventually he moved to England, returning to the States in 1958. Though his health failed him in his later years, Robeson remained dedicated to ideals, to hope, to justice and peace. If he now seems impossible, he also stands as a model for the best in all of us.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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