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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.


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