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Paul Robeson: Portraits Of An Artist

Paul Robeson , Leslie Banks , Dudley Murphy , Kenneth MacPherson    NR (Not Rated)   DVD

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Product Description

All-American athlete, scholar, renowned baritone, stage actor, and social activist, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was a towering figure and a trailblazer many times over. He was perhaps most groundbreaking, however, in the medium of film. The son of an escaped slave, Robeson managed to become a top-billed movie star during the time of Jim Crow America, headlining everything from fellow pioneer Oscar Micheaux's silent drama Body and Soul to British studio showcases to socially engaged documentaries, always striving to project positive images of black characters. Increasingly politically minded, Robeson eventually left movies behind, using his international celebrity to speak for those denied their civil liberties around the world and ultimately becoming a victim of ideological persecution himself. But his film legacy lives on and continues to speak eloquently of the long and difficult journey of a courageous and outspoken African American.

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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent release Feb. 24 2007
By Ted - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD|Verified Purchase
This Release of Paul Robeson films is a great release from Criterion. Released for Black History Month, this set includes 7 feature films and two documentaries.

Each disc contains two fims and select special features

"The Emperor Jones" is about a black man who escapes from a chain gang and flees to the West Indies.

"Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist" is a biographial documentary about Robeson narrated by Sidney Poiteir.

"Body and Soul" is about a corrupt preacher.

"Borderline" is about a group of interracial lovers

"Sanders of the River" is about an African tibesman

"Jericho" is about a black World War I soldier who deserts and heads to Africa,

"The Proud Valley" is about a coal miner in Wales

"Native Land" is socialist documentary film about labor unions.

Disc one contains commentary for "The Emperor Jones" by historian Jeffrey C. Stewart, "Our Paul: Remembering Paul Robeson" a retrospective containing interviews various black filmmakers and performers including James Earl Jones, and an interview with Robeson's son, Paul Robeson Jr.

Disc two contains commentary for "Body and Soul" by Micheaux historian Pearl Bowser. Also included are new scores for both films on the disc

Disc three contains "True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson" a progarm featuring interviews with Robeson Jr. and other persons

Disc four contains "The Story of Native Land," an interview with cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, and a1958 radio interview with Paul Robeson.

Also included is a booklet with various other materials
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent collection of an important man Aug. 17 2007
By Shawn McKenna - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD
Semi-terse comments on this box set:

Here is a set that is more historically important than aesthetically interesting or artistically elegant (with the exception of Borderline). It is nice to see Criterion put out a set (like the Monsters and Madmen collection) that is not director focused. Paul Robeson is such a captivating character that he (usually) rises above the flawed material he is in. It is interesting how music made way into most of his films even when it seemed out of context of the movie. His philosophy of getting early roles for Black work fell way to good roles for African American or nothing at all which is why he stopped acting in the early 40s.

The Emperor Jones (1933): A strong characterization from Robeson (reprising his stage role from Eugene O'Neill's play) as a power hungry and conniving Pullman porter who eventually becomes emperor of a Caribbean island. Dated and a lot of racist language that has been cut out for past edits of the film, but the movie is still interesting to watch. The first two-thirds of the film are so strongly presented by Robeson that his eventual collapse seems unconvincing. Jones is a good early example of an anti-hero. One scene with a lover of Jones refuses the money he gives her after breaking up, but she eventually picks it up reminds me of the similar scene in Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing". Excellent commentary by Jeffrey C. Stewart, Professor of History and Art History at George Mason University and author of Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen, who discusses the context, mise en scenes, actors and comparisons to the stage play. He does not discuss too many biographical details of Robeson though.

Body and Soul (1925): so far the only film I've seen by Oscar Micheaux in one of four extant silent films from this director. Robeson is decent in this silent-film (Robeson's first film) playing two different characters of Isaiah T. Jenkins and his better brother (though he is stiff in his performance). This movie is a strong commentary on the hypocritical aspects of religious leadership. This movie does make you wonder if the mother could have been ignorant enough to ignore the daughter and her cries against the pastor. I wonder if the ending was considered cliché then because it is certainly now though it could have been the fault of the many edits that were forced upon Micheaux to get this film played. This is discussed in the good commentary by Micheaux author/historian Pearl Bowser. She also discusses a variety of topics including the "Race" movies of the time, Micheaux during this time and the actors that are in the film.

Borderline (1930): Beautiful use of editing and montage (Criterion labels this as Eisensteinian) in this film about an interracial love affair (including Robeson's wife Eslanda) and its consequences. There is not much use of intertitles so it forces you to concentrate on the performances and the particular meanings of each countenance. Paul Robeson is not the focal point of the film. Too bad Kenneth Macpherson did not make another film.

Sanders of the River (1935): this film is embarrassing especially for Robeson who still puts in a strong performance. It is a very pro-British imperialistic film. Some beautiful footage of Africa though (mentioned in the extras that several hours were taken).

Jericho (1937): Robeson's had more artistic control (especially how he worked the end and his characters became more utopian and less realistic) but I the film is a bit too simplistic and ends up a little dated -- though still entertaining. Roberson plays Cpl. Jericho Jackson a top notch military man who saves several men but kills a superior. This forces him to go AWOL where he eventually becomes an important leader to Bedouin in northern Africa. It does a nice job to juxtapose the stereotypical black/white duo with comic relief played by Henry Wilcoxon.

The Proud Valley (1940): slow moving idealistic tale of Welsh coal mineworkers (wayward American played by Robeson does make the coal choir club though) during WWII. Proud Valley deals with the dangers of coalminers but more with the Welsh spirit of continuing life even after a calamity (the mine collapsed and the miners had to fight the government to get it back running again). Heartwarming, but ultimately its ending is too naive. An early Ealing production.

Native Land (1942): very biased pro-union film (the union appears almost as a perfect solution) that reminds me of Michael Moore's work. The characters are so one-dimensional and so extremely polarized that the film seems an exercise in finding the logical fallacies. Paul Robeson does the voice-over well though with his booming, brilliant baritone/bass voice in this quasi-documentary.

The extras are good especially the Academy award winning short "Paul Robeson: Tribute To An Artist" (1979), but are far from complete; not much is made on his pro-Stalin comments (especially the written eulogy for Stalin published in the New World Review, April, 1953). It would have been nice if Criterion put out Robeson's last film "Tales of Manhattan" with this set. I am interested in reading his son's (Paul Robeson Jr.) main book on his father, The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, An Artist's Journey, 1898-1939, where he does talk about Paul's career, his political troubles and his long-term affair with an actress. Paul Robeson Jr. was instrumental in getting this set together. This set is long overdue because other than his rendition of "Ol Man River" for "Show Boat" much of Paul Robeson's legacy has been forgotten because of age and political persecution in the 50s.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Old Man River Just Keeps Rolling Along Jan. 3 2011
By Alfred Johnson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD
Paul Robeson's name can be found in many places in this space for his extraordinary (untutored) vocal talents singing songs of freedom, of the struggle for human dignity and for artistic effect (Emperor Jones, etc.). The most famous, or from a leftist perspective, infamous use of that instrument was the Peekskill (New York) concert of 1949 where he, his fellow progressives, including Communist Party members and sympathizers, literally had to fight off the fascistic locals in the throes of the post-World War II Cold War "red scare" that dominated my childhood and many others from my generation of '68.

But that skill hardly ends the list of talents that Paul Robeson used in his life: scholar, All-American football player (at one point denied that honor because of his politics), folklorist, actor, and, most importantly, political activist round out the main features. This Criterion Collection series of four discs concentrates on his film career (and other short biographic and memory pieces) especially the early work where he had to play groveling, simple-minded blacks and did so against type (his ever present black and proud type). I will give a short summary below to show the range of his work, although his real role as Shakespeare's Othello, done on the stage, is by all accounts, his definitive work, as is, to my mind Emperor Jones for his film work.

That said, Paul Robeson, and I were political opponents on the left. Whether he was a member or just a sympathizer of the Stalinized Communist Party (or to use a quaint work form the old Cold War days, fellow-traveler) he nevertheless, if one looks closely at his speeches and comments stayed very close to the American Communist Party "party line" of the times (whatever that was, or rather whatever Moscow called for), including the ritualistic denunciation of Trotskyites as counter-revolutionaries, etc. He, however, was an eloquent spokesman for blacks here in America and internationally, a speaker against the Cold War madness, and a fighter for national liberation and anti-colonial struggles a kindred spirit. Moreover, unlike others, including poet Langston Hughes and novelist Richard Wright no "turncoat" and held his ground despite its effect on his career, his ability to earn a living, and his ability to leave America. Thus, he, along with the anarchist Emma Goldman, is one of those contradictory political characters from the past that I have a "soft" spot for. Paul Robeson's voice and presence, in any case, with this comprehensive retrospective (and others) will always be there. I wish, wish like hell, he could have been with us when the deal went down and communists had to choose between Stalinism and Trotskyism.
********
Emperor Jones, a classic Robeson performance is the main feature of the first disc. It is almost painful to watch this brilliant Eugene O'Neill play brought to the screen in 1933 for its language (the `n' word), it depiction of blacks, in the cities and the jungle as servile or loony, and merely the white man's fodder and for its primitive cinematic effects. But Paul Robeson IS Emperor Jones. No amount of fool talk, bad dialogue, didactic scripting can take away the power of his performance, foolishly tempting the fates, and the white man, or not. This is a powerful black man, period. His singing, especially of Water Boy, of course, needs no comment from me.

The other part of this disc is a sequence short piece on his life and times, as well as the effect hat he had on then up-and-coming young black actors and singers like James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee. This is a good short biographic sketch, although I find it hard to believe that throughout the various comments the fact of his association with the American Communist Party is no mentioned by anyone or I did not hear it mentioned by the narrator once. Robeson is characterized as merely a black social activist. This is a disservice to his memory, and a form of historical distortion that I have found elsewhere (notably in a Howard Zinn tribute documentary done by Matt Damon).The American Communist Party, our left-wing political enemy or not, was part of the working class movement in this country, at some points an important part, and to deny that is to deny our left-wing history. No, this falsification by omission will not do.
2.0 out of 5 stars Power Leads to Corruption Aug. 17 2014
By Acute Observer - Published on Amazon.com
The Emperor Jones, 1933 film

It begins with natives drumming and singing in their language. The dress suggests South Africa. The scene shifts to modern times, a religious meeting. Brutus Jones has a job that requires travel on the railroad as a Pullman Porter. The job involves polishing shoes, a good job gets bigger tip. In the big city he joins a party. He has another girlfriend. He overhears conversations in the Pullman coach about an investment. They show the acts in a night club. Two women fight. The next scene is a pool hall, men roll dice on the table. The stakes are raised. The dice are crooked! There is a fight with a knife; one man falls to the floor. Next we see convicts breaking rocks. They sing as they work. There is harsh punishment!

Jones hides in a truck to runaway. He finds a home to help him leave the country on a steamer. Then he jumps ship to swim to an island. Armed men bring him before the ruler. A white trader buys him for five silver dollars and offers him a job. A dice game distributes goods. Jones promotes himself to a partnership. Smithers offers his bill to the ruler; is there a little error? Three is a palace coup, Jones is ruler by brains (and a little magic). Taxes are raised to pay off the National Debt. The Emperor buys new clothes, and his palace is redecorated. The people resent this. “A little stealing puts you in jail, big stealing makes you an Emperor.” [Do clothes make the man?]

The Court assembles. Prisoners are whipped for beating a tax collector. A village will be burned to the ground in reprisal. Smithers tells Jones what happened today. Is the game up? People have fled to the hills, when will they attack? Jones hears the drums and leaves the palace. The tempo increases. Is he lost in the woods? He talks to himself as he wanders. He sees a ghost and fires his pistol. He discards his fancy jacket. Then he imagines himself back on the chain gang. Is he going in circles? He prays for forgiveness. Then he meets his fate. And so it ends.

This drama is a lesson in politics, a warning against unlimited power. Does this story seem realistic? I assume its portrayal of life in the 1930s is accurate. Drinking and gambling often lead to a killing (as in the pictures of the Wild West by Frederic Remington). It seems unrealistic in having a stranger take over a small country. Usually there is a group that supports a ruler, like an aristocracy of the wealthy (or an officer corps). Even in small gangs, one man rules with the help of others. Think of Chicago in the 1920s or Cleveland in the 1930s. This is based on the play by Eugene O’Neill. [“Emperor Jones” was the name of a Cleveland Ohio gangster in the 1930s.]
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful collection by Criterion Oct. 19 2013
By Valmore P. Boily - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD|Verified Purchase
The discs are excellent. You feel like you are watching the films when they were brand new. Worth every penny.

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