Paul Robeson: the singer and activist who pioneered a path for black actors

These remarkable posters and promotional materials tell the incredible story of the American singer and actor Paul Robeson, who found a unique place for his talents in the British cinema of the 1930s and 40s.

Nathalie Morris
Updated:

Show Boat (1936)

Show Boat (1936)
Credit: BFI National Archive

Athlete, trained lawyer, singer, political activist and theatre and film actor, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was a true renaissance man who overcame racial prejudice to become one of the biggest stars of his time. After establishing himself as a singer and actor, including a film role in Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925), Robeson came to Britain in the late 1920s looking for opportunities that were not available to him in America. In 1928 Robeson played Joe in the British production of the musical Show Boat. He was an immediate hit (he would reprise the role in the 1936 film version, directed by James Whale, pictured) and was swiftly embraced by popular audiences and intelligentsia alike.

Robeson and his wife Eslanda found Britain more tolerant than the US. They decided to stay and build Robeson’s career in Europe. In 1930 he undertook concert tours, performed on stage in Othello opposite Peggy Ashcroft, and both he and Eslanda starred in the experimental film Borderline. The film was made by Kenneth Macpherson, editor of the intellectual film journal Close Up, writer Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman) and the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

Borderline (1930) promotional booklet

Borderline (1930) promotional booklet
Credit: BFI National Archive

This formally experimental film was groundbreaking in its depiction of race and sexuality. Eslanda described it in a letter as “a dreadful highbrow” but “beautifully done”. A review in the British trade paper The Bioscope found the film’s modernist technique frustrating, while noting: “it stimulates one’s natural desire to see and hear Paul Robeson in a first-rate British ‘talkie’ made for the public.” This would still be a few years away.

The Emperor Jones (1933)

The Emperor Jones (1933)
Credit: BFI National Archive

The Emperor Jones, Robeson’s first sound film, was made in 1933 at Paramount’s studios on Long Island. Robeson had originally acted in Eugene O’Neill’s play in 1924 in New York and subsequently in British and German productions. Play and film tell the story of Brutus Jones, who escapes from prison and sets himself up as emperor of a Caribbean island. The black press had a mixed reaction to the film, with some feeling that it supported negative stereotypes of black people. Others felt that having a lead black character in a commercial feature was itself an important breakthrough.

Aside from two American-made films, The Emperor Jones and Show Boat, the greater part of Robeson’s 1930s film career was based firmly in the UK. He became a huge star but had mixed feelings towards the films in which he appeared. In the early 1930s he became increasingly fascinated by black and African culture. Looking for roles that would support this, Robeson was enthusiastic when the Korda brothers (producer Alexander and director Zoltán) offered him the role of African chief Bosambo in their Edgar Wallace adaptation, Sanders of the River (1935).

Sanders of the River (1935) pressbook

Sanders of the River (1935) pressbook
Credit: BFI National Archive

Zoltán was interested in African culture, and Robeson was thrilled at the footage and musical recordings that his director brought back after a five-month trip to central Africa. He believed that the film would offer a rich portrait of African life but was sadly disappointed when he saw the final film, which is a paean to white imperialism. He later told an interviewer: “I hate the picture.”

Sanders of the River (1935) poster

Sanders of the River (1935) poster
Credit: BFI National Archive

After his disappointment with Sanders of the River, Robeson was delighted to make Song of Freedom (1936), which he felt gave him “a real part for the first time”. In this British film, he plays opposite another black American star, Elisabeth Welch, as a dock worker who yearns to know more about his African roots. His singing talent is discovered, and he becomes a famous opera singer before discovering he is heir to an African kingdom.

Song of Freedom (1936) pressbook

Song of Freedom (1936) pressbook
Credit: BFI National Archive

The part enabled Robeson to depict an ordinary, hard-working black character who is fully accepted by his community. But it also allowed plenty of scope for Robeson, as the world-renowned singer, to perform on screen. By this time, Robeson was a huge star and fully accepted by his adopted country, as this press campaign book for Song of Freedom illustrates: Robeson is billed as the “outstanding British attraction and star of the year”.

Song of Freedom (1936) pressbook

Song of Freedom (1936) pressbook
Credit: BFI National Archive

The African American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier wrote that Song of Freedom was “the finest story of coloured folks yet brought to the screen”. The poet, novelist, activist and playwright Langston Hughes, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, told Robeson’s wife Eslanda that “Harlem liked Song of Freedom”.

Song of Freedom (1936) poster

Song of Freedom (1936) poster
Credit: John Kisch / Separate Cinema Archive

In 1937, Robeson made Jericho. Drafted into the army, medical student Jericho Jackson (Robeson) is unjustly court martialled and sent to prison. Escaping to north Africa he builds a new life for himself as leader of a remote tribe but is torn between his new family and loyalty to an old comrade who has been implicated in his escape.

Jericho (1937)

Jericho (1937)
Credit: BFI National Archive

Jericho (1937)

Jericho (1937)
Credit: BFI National Archive

Jericho (1937)

Jericho (1937)
Credit: BFI National Archive

Jericho was shot in Egypt and features stunning location work as well as the (to be expected) bravura singing performances from Robeson. After Jericho, Robeson decided to quit the cinema. Long-held plans to make a film with Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein had failed to materialise and although he was granted a certain level of control over the final cut of Jericho, Robeson still felt the cinema was not giving him the opportunity to create wholly positive black characters.

In the years leading up to the Second World War he lent his support to various causes, including the plight of the republicans in the Spanish civil war. He appeared in plays at the left-wing Unity Theatre, spoke out in favour of the Soviet Union, and, in a concert at the Albert Hall, subverted the lyrics from his most famous song, Show Boat’s ‘Ol’ Man River’, to turn it from a song of resignation into one of defiance and resilience. Robeson’s star power was at its height. In 1938 he had his most successful concert tour to date and, in a poll for the Motion Picture Herald, he was voted one of the top 10 most popular British film stars.

The Proud Valley (1940) pressbook

The Proud Valley (1940) pressbook
Credit: BFI National Archive

In 1939, British producer Michael Balcon persuaded Robeson to return to films. The Proud Valley was specially written for Robeson and perfectly suited his left-wing politics. He plays David Goliath, an American who finds work in the coal mines of south Wales. The film is notable for its realistic and unpatronising portrayal of working people, and of its black lead character.

The Proud Valley (1940)

The Proud Valley (1940)
Credit: BFI National Archive

David is welcomed into the community, where he joins the colliery choir (thereby giving Robeson the opportunity to sing). He joins with the workers when the pit is threatened with closure, his solidarity echoing his real-life affinity with the Welsh miners, who he had supported since the late 1920s.

By 1939, Robeson’s own politics were creating waves. He had long been enamoured of the Soviet Union, seeing it as a country where racism had been eradicated. His pro-Soviet remarks, and questioning of the motives for war, aroused ire in many quarters, and the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook refused to publicise The Proud Valley when it was released.

The Proud Valley (1940) poster

The Proud Valley (1940) poster
Credit: BFI National Archive

Robeson quit feature films once and for all after 1942’s Tales of Manhattan, and focused on work that supported his ideological beliefs. He continued to sing and to appear on the stage, most notably in his acclaimed performances in Othello (1945 and 1959). He narrated and sang for the documentary Native Land (1942), which exposed civil liberty abuses in America. The FBI thought the film was communist propaganda and this, combined with Robeson’s prominent position as a vocal proponent of civil liberties and left-wing politics, saw him blacklisted in the McCarthy era. He was denied a passport and was unable to travel abroad until 1958.

Souvenir brochure for a Paul Robeson concert tour, c.1958

Souvenir brochure for a Paul Robeson concert tour, c.1958
Credit: BFI National Archive

In 1958 he began a world tour and again made Britain his base. Following some serious health issues he returned to the United States in 1963, living there until his death in 1976. Robeson’s reputation has suffered across the years, in part because of his blacklisting and Soviet sympathies, and in part because of the problematic nature of many of his film roles. But today he is increasingly being remembered and recognised as a significant figure whose talents and activities spanned a broad spectrum of cultural and political life. Watching him on screen, particularly when he is performing musical numbers, makes it clear that he was a true, and hugely talented, star.

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