Transatlantic stardom: African American trailblazers in British film

The fascinating story of Paul Robeson and other African American actors who found a home in the British film industry in the 1930s and 40s.

Suyin Haynes

Paul Robeson in The Proud Valley (1940)

Paul Robeson in The Proud Valley (1940)

The importance of the visibility of black actors on screen cannot be overstated, particularly in a world as uncertain as our current one. With the BFI’s new collection of Black Britain on Film, we can see that black actors have always been present on our screens but – compared with their white counterparts – have not always been given the attention or the opportunities that they deserve.

Among the more intriguing elements brought into focus by Black Britain on Film is the work of a number of African American stars who found their home in the British film industry in the 1930s and 40s. Long before such modern examples of American actors starring in British movies as Julia Roberts in Notting Hill (1999), or Sasha Lane in Andrea Arnold’s US road trip odyssey American Honey (2016), these transatlantic trailblazers prove that there has always been a close cultural exchange between these two film industries.

Let’s look at the stories of a handful of these groundbreaking actors, the legacies they left in Britain and where to find them in the collection.

Harry Scott and Eddie Whaley

In this episode of popular revue show Shooting Stars, filmed in 1937, music hall entertainers Harry Scott and Eddie Whaley perform a minstrelsy skit, donning blackface and adopting racist stereotypes. This may be surprising and shocking to us now, yet it was commonplace for black actors to wear blackface at this time.

In this particular sketch, one half of the double act plays the intelligent, smart ‘gentleman’, while the other wears exaggerated face paint mimicking blackface and plays the ‘fool’, acting up to derogatory caricatures of African Americans that were considered popular entertainment at the time. 

This recording of the duo is one of the earliest recordings of African American performers in British film, alongside their starring roles in the 1934 musical Kentucky Minstrels. Kentucky Minstrels also featured young starlet Nina Mae McKinney, who, with other entertainers, such as Adelaide Hall, were credited with bringing the style and spirit of the Harlem Renaissance to London’s theatres and cabaret clubs from the mid-1930s. 

Harry Scott originated from Cleveland, Ohio, and Eddie Whaley from the Deep South. They were first invited to perform together as a comedy duo in Britian in Sheffield in 1909, as Stephen Bourne notes in his book Black in the British Frame: The Black Experience in British Film and Television. Whaley would usually play the straight-laced gentleman, while Scott would don blackface to play the fool in their comedy act. Not only did they perform in music halls across the country, but they also toured Europe and Australia following their London debut in 1910. As showcased in the film, the duo were also successful musicians and were credited in a 1936 British newspaper with being “the first people to bring ragtime and syncopation to England”. Neither would return to America after their successes in the blossoming British entertainment industry.

Adelaide Hall

Adelaide Hall is striking dressed in white here, as we watch her performing and rehearsing at London’s Nightingale Club. Singing ‘The Gospel Train’, a traditional African American gospel song, Hall implores the high-society British audience to “get on board” with her characteristic warmth. The verses see Hall almost talk to her audience, and show her magnetism as a performer. Her intimate rehearsal with her pianist feels slightly rehearsed in itself, but the ways in which she hones her version of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ show her determination and professionalism as an entertainer and performer.

Born in Brooklyn, and a figurehead of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, Hall was truly a transatlantic trailblazer. As a young woman, she had been asked by the king of jazz, Duke Ellington, to record with his band and soon became one of the leading lights of an exciting new generation of black performers.

Travelling round the US and Paris before settling in London in 1938, Hall quickly established herself as one of Britain’s leading performers, starring in top West End musicals, such as Kiss Me Kate and Love from Judy, and she was instrumental in re-introducing cabaret to London’s theatres in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. She would later return to the US to perform sell-out, critically acclaimed shows, and since her death in 1993 has continued to inspire singers such as Laura Mvula, as well as a Broadway musical.

Paul Robeson

In a segment of this newsreel titled ‘A Star Drops In’, the newscaster refers to the 1940 film The Proud Valley, the story of a Welsh pit in the years just before the war, which starred Paul Robeson. This clip comes from Robeson’s 1949 trip to Edinburgh, in which he paid a surprise visit to a mine near the city, before hosting a special concert there in the evening exclusively for miners.

In the clip, hundreds of faces are transfixed on the deep-voiced singer, and miners, still with the lights on their hats, scramble to the windows to get a glimpse of the American star, who by this point had enjoyed a phenomenally successful international career. Here he sings ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’ for miners in the canteen, a song about an American trade unionist who was allegedly framed on a murder charge and executed in 1915. This trip was one of many that Robeson carried out after filming The Proud Valley in Wales, where he would make special efforts to visit mining communities all over Britain.

The son of a former slave, Robeson’s story is quite extraordinary and is slated to be produced as a film directed by Steve McQueen. The third black student ever to enrol at his university, in 1915, Robeson went on to study law at Columbia while playing professional football. While many of us might associate him with his deep bass timbre in the Kern and Hammerstein musical Show Boat, Robeson’s turn as Othello in 1930 made him the first black actor in almost a century to play the Shakespearean character in England.

Robeson and his wife Eslanda settled in the leafy north London Hampstead area while he played roles in the London version of Show Boat as well as Othello. The latter was a role he would come to dominate as his own on the Broadway stage, where it became the longest-running Shakespearean play in Broadway history, at some 300 performances. 

Robeson’s travels due to his performance work brought him into contact with people and ideas that would awaken his political consciousness. Significantly, Robeson became one of the most profitable performers of his time, earning more than some of his white counterparts for his roles, which was important considering the context of still-segregated America. After the Second World War, Robeson became a committed campaigner and activist dedicated to causes such as the civil rights, human rights and union movements.

American actor Paul Robeson at an anti-nuclear march organised by the British Peace Committee on 29 June 1959. The march progressed from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square, where Robeson sang ‘Ol’ Man River’ to a crowd of 10,000

American actor Paul Robeson at an anti-nuclear march organised by the British Peace Committee on 29 June 1959. The march progressed from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square, where Robeson sang ‘Ol’ Man River’ to a crowd of 10,000

If we look back at Robeson’s achievements over his lifetime, even just in the performance sphere, his impact on theatregoers and entertainment consumers was truly stratospheric. Stephen Bourne notes the huge contribution made by Robeson to British cinema and the glowing admiration he drew from contemporary audience members. Paradoxically, Bourne also identifies the omission of the great actor in both literary and artistic retrospectives of British cinema – something that the McQueen biopic can hopefully redress.

Early pioneers of transatlantic stardom, such as Scott and Whaley, Adelaide Hall, Paul Robeson and their contemporaries, were vital figures in breaking down barriers for black actors in the British film industry. As part of the Black Star season celebrating the achievements and versatility of black actors, the BFI is highlighting the performances of Robeson alongside the work of contemporary transatlantic trailblazers, including Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo. The historic films featured in the Black Britain on Film collection pay tribute to the men and women throughout the 20th century who paved the way for black actors aiming to bridge the transatlantic gap between the US and UK film industries today.

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