Why did I chose an American as the first star of the month? Partly because it's his centenary and the NFT had a season of his films on, partly because his best films were made in Britain. The main reason is that I spent two years at the National Film and Television School which is based around the old Beaconsfield studios. Beaconsfield produced some distinguished films and a lot of dross. Robeson made two films there with Elisabeth Welch (Big Fella and Song of Freedom) and I used to get a thrill from walking through the same stages Robeson must have trod.
He first came to notice in the British production of Show Boat where his definitive version of Ol' Man River stopped the show. He played the same part in the 1932 Broadway revival and made his first feature "The Emperor Jones" the following year. He disliked this film for its patronising attitude to black people and returned to England to play an African Chief in "Saunders of the River". This film was far worse and Robeson publicly walked out of the premiere. He went back to America to film "Show Boat". From now on his contracts insisted on final cut approval and he returned to Britain to make five films in three years. The best of these films is The Proud Valley- the only one of his films he was proud of. He returned to America on the eve of WWII and made one more film before his political activities put him on the anti-communist blacklist. A lot of his time in these years was taken up by touring as "Othello": thought by many to be the definitive interpretation.
His British films shouldn't been seen as a sign that British society wasn't racist but more as a sign of the desperate need of the film industry for international stars (Anna May Wong also benefited from this). Even the best of his films seem patronising today but when he gets the chance to sing we can only be grateful that he was given these limited chances to appear on screen.
|1933||The Emperor Jones (US)|
|1935||Sanders of the River|
|1937||Song of Freedom|
|1938||King Solomon's Mines|
|1939||The Proud Valley|
|1942||Tales of Manhattan (US)|
Paul Robeson at Amazon UK
Paul Robeson at Amazon US