Paul Robeson: Portraits Of An Artist
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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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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
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.
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.
In that light, Robeson is also a reminder of a time when it actually seemed possible to engage with the idea of a political alternative (whether you find the idea pleasing or not). His evasive refusal to denounce Stalin in his House of Un-American Activities Committee hearings is certainly a difficult piece of history for white people to accept; but it's also not difficult to understand why Robeson would not be particularly eager to deliver these criticisms to the disgraceful HUAC to serve as handy propaganda for a country that had essentially marginalised his ability to speak and segregated him from the global community (Robeson's massive and FBI files can be found online). Instead, Robeson simply stated that "whatever has happened to Stalin, gentlemen, is a question for the Soviet Union .. I will discuss Stalin when I may be among the Russian people some day, singing for them, I will discuss it there". (Testimony of Paul Robeson before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 12 June 1956.)
Real figures of political dissent now seem a long way off; it's worth remembering that most American Communists were NOT blindly supporting Stalin, but were demanding local rights like basic workers' conditions and racial and sexual equality that we now take for granted (even when we fail to live up to the ideals). If there's no HUAC now, it's not because Robeson would no longer be targeted, but because we seem to be endlessly effective at making sure that Robesons rarely emerge. Adopting the seemingly-neutral tone of modern liberal tolerance seems to be the new method for diverting any real social or political action that may carry any disruptive element. Who needs HUAC when we can police ourselves and target even moderately progressive ideas as `dangerously radical'?
It would be hard to exaggerate how amazing this collection is and how vital it is that Robeson's history be preserved and passed down. Each film is a priceless time capsule of a creativity and path finding on film with Native Land being particularly poignant. Check out Robeson's recently voluminous wikipedia pages to get an idea of the magnitude of his unparalleled life. Robeson's example of principled courageous agency, his mistakes and his courage, stands for all to learn from.