The new 4 DVD box set from Criterion, Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist, features seven of Robeson’s feature films (he made 11), all digitally transferred from the best surviving elements and accompanied by an extensive booklet as well as numerous bonus features.
Robeson began his acting career around 1922 while attending Columbia Law School in New York. Some of his most notable early stage appearances included the title roles in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and Shakespeare’s Othello, the role of Crown in DuBose Heyward’s Porgy (the basis for the Gershwin’s musical Porgy and Bess), and the role of Joe in Show Boat, which was specifically written for Robeson and features what would become his signature song, “Ol’ Man River.” Robeson was also cast in the 1936 film version of Show Boat, which was probably his most successful screen role; previously released on VHS (though not currently available on DVD), it is unfortunately not included in this set. Also missing from the set (but available elsewhere on DVD) are four films he made in quick succession immediately following Show Boat— Song of Freedom (1936), Big Fella (1937), King Solomon’s Mines (1937), and Tales of Manhattan (1942, his final film).
Of the seven films included in Portraits of the Artist, the first two are silent. Body and Soul (1925) by the famous African American film maker Oscar Micheaux, casts Robeson as “a minister that is malevolent and sinister behind his righteous facade.” Borderline (1930) is a rarely seen experimental film by the director Kenneth McPherson in which Robeson’s real life wife, Eslanda Robeson, co-stars as a Negro woman who has an affair with a white man (she also had cameo roles in Big Fella and Jericho). Although Robeson’s magnificent voice is absent from both, viewers can still appreciate his considerable acting abilities while also enjoying the new jazz scores by Wycliffe Gordon (Body and Soul) and Courtney Pine (Borderline).
Robeson’s next film, The Emperor Jones (1933), was his first sound-era appearance and represents his most significant Hollywood work. Here he portrays an escaped convict who makes his way to a Caribbean island, subsequently declares himself the emperor, and proceeds to oppress the natives. Adapted from the Eugene O’Neill play, the film version added nearly 30 minutes of additional material including several songs. Criterion utilized a newly restored print from the Library of Congress, which is the most complete edition of the film available.
Following the success of The Emperor Jones, Robeson moved to England in an attempt to exert more control over his projects and escape racial stereotyping. The next three films in the set come from this period. Though he is barely able to maintain his dignity as the Nigerian tribal chief “Bosambo” in Sanders of the Valley (1935), both Jericho (1937) and The Proud Valley (1940) allowed him greater leeway to explore the issues of equality and social justice that were becoming increasingly important in his personal life. The set closes with Native Land (1942), a left-wing semi-documentary with a score by Marc Blitzstein, which cast Robeson in the role of narrator of a series of vignettes and dramatic re-enactments promoting labor unions, documenting civil liberty violations, and including subplots involving the KKK and capitalists run amok. Given the date and thematic material, it should come as no surprise that Robeson and others associated with the film were subsequently blacklisted.
In addition to the films mentioned above, each of the four discs contain special bonus features. Disc one includes a discussion of The Emperor Jones (both the play and the film) by historian Jeffrey C. Stewart, Saul J. Turell’s Academy Award-winning documentary short Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979) narrated by Sidney Poitier, and Our Paul: Remembering Paul Robeson, featuring interviews with African American filmmakers and actors including Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, and Paul Robeson Jr. Disc two includes a dissection of Body and Soul by Micheaux historian Pearl Bowser. Disc three features the mini-documentary True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson, with a scholarly analysis of Robeson’s life and work in England. Disc four features The Story of Native Land, an interview with cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, and concludes with a 1958 Pacifica Radio interview with Robeson.
By 1950 Robeson’s recordings and films (including Show Boat) were withdrawn from circulation as a result of the U.S. government’s campaign of harassment and persecution against this social and political activist, who remained until his dying day both relentless and unrepentant in his quest for justice and civil rights. Only in recent years has an attempt been made to rectify this travesty, thus we owe a debt of gratitude to Criterion for producing this magnificent set. Now these films can once again be enjoyed by scholars and musicians as well as the many other fans of the late, great Paul Robeson.
Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss