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
The story concerns a black man of the depression era who lacks the moral stamina to resist the various temptations set before him, and who ultimately finds himself on a remote island where he uses his superior intellect and physically intimidating presence to set himself up as "Emperor." But his own past troubles have hardened him. Instead of ruling in justice, he uses his position to bleed the population--and they revolt against him.
But regretfully, this film isn't half as good as it could have been or a quarter as good as it should have been. On the stage, THE EMPEROR JONES had tremendous irony, for in so crushing his subjects Brutus Jones has essentially recreated the white American society that crushed him. Moreover, the staging was uniquely powerful, with the vast majority of the story played out as Jones runs through the jungle in an effort to escape his revolting subjects, all the while recalling the various events of his life that led him to the present moment. But the film version pretty much throws all of this out the window, preferring to downplay O'Neill's social commentary and reducing Jone's race through the jungle to a few scenes at the film's conclusion.
Robeson is a memorable actor, but he was still very new to the screen when this film was made, and although he is powerful his performance here is rather stagey in comparison with his later screen work. And while the film is occasionally interesting in a visual way, it simply doesn't have the courage to go all the way with O'Neil's origial vision. Fans of Robeson, O'Neil, and early 1930s film will find it an interesting failure, but most others should give it a miss.
GFT, Amazon.com Reviewer
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.