Paul Robeson, new film coming

From the Stop the War Coalition in Britain:

Tony Benn, President of Stop the War Coalition: “There are many songs I would like to choose but Joe Hill sung by Paul Robeson would be among the top two. It says it all.”

Lyrics are here.

This video says about itself:

20 November 2014

Director Steve McQueen, who made last year’s Best Picture-winning 12 Years a Slave, has revealed that his next film will be a biopic about the black American actor-and-singer Paul Robeson.

By John Wight in Britain:

Life lived for a cause greater than himself

Saturday 6th December 2014

News that British Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen is to make a biopic of Paul Robeson causes JOHN WIGHT to reflect on a figure whose commitment to the plight of the common man — regardless of race, creed or nationality — has left an unsurpassable legacy

ONE of my most treasured possessions is a book of the writings and speeches of Paul Robeson.

It charts his remarkable life from the post-WWI years, when he first came to prominence as a student at the prestigious Rutgers University, excelling in college football as the only black player on the team, and first demonstrated his prodigious talent as an actor and singer.

The son of an escaped slave, this alone signalled the remarkable drive and self-belief he would exude throughout his life.

The book moves on to the 1920s when, after a brief flirtation with a law career, Robeson entered the world of show business, finding international fame on Broadway by the end of that decade.

But he spent most of the ’30s in London, where he embarked on a career in films, playing a succession of African characters that in their depiction of servility and racial stereotyping he would later consider an insult to his people.

It was during this period in England that he experienced the political, racial and social awakening that would define the rest of his life and legacy. In particular, he forged an undying bond and affinity with the Welsh miners, identifying with their struggle and proud musical cultural tradition, one he associated with his own people in the United States.

By the 1940s Paul Robeson was a passionate anti-fascist and anti-colonialist who, having visited the Soviet Union, returned an unapologetic supporter and sympathiser with the socialist state. …

The singer and by now political activist had visited Spain during the civil war, where he toured the country singing to the anti-fascist Republican troops and volunteers to raise their morale. Like many within the artistic community in the US and throughout Europe, Robeson considered fascism to be the common enemy of mankind.

Indeed during the second world war he extended himself in touring war plants and factories throughout the US giving concerts and speeches in support of the war effort.

He combined this with regular appearances onstage, winning rave notices for his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello in particular. Touring with the play, he refused to appear in Southern states in venues where segregation was in force. In a 1942 speech to a mixed audience of blacks and whites in New Orleans, he said: “Nothing the future brings can defeat a people who have come through three hundred years of slavery and humiliation and privation with heads high and eyes clear and straight.”

Running through him too was a fierce class consciousness, fuelling a consistent message of unity among workers across the racial divide. In 1945 he reminded delegates at the annual convention of the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union of “the necessity of complete unity of all groups in our country.”

After the second world war Robeson found himself under attack from the political and media establishment in the US for his refusal to renege on his support for and solidarity with the Soviet Union. If anything, he raised his voice even louder when it came to articulating his refusal to bow to the huge pressure to conform to the new wave of anti-Soviet hysteria as the cold war got underway.

His appearance at the 1949 Paris Peace Conference resulted in a firestorm of criticism in the US press after giving a speech in which he was reported to have said: “It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union, which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.”

Despite claiming that his words were distorted by the US press, he was hung out to dry, depicted as a traitor and a dangerous subversive. When a reporter asked him about a story claiming that during a recent visit to Moscow he said that he loved Russia more than any other country, he replied: “What I said was that I love the America of which I am a part. I don’t love the America of Wall Street. I love the America of the working class. I love the working class of England and France and other countries. …”

It was now that Robeson was deserted and abandoned by former friends and allies in his home country as a campaign of demonisation succeeded in uniting right and left against him. He was a major target of the McCarthyite anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. But even so he remained defiant. “The big lie is the fairy tale that the American people are somehow threatened by communism,” he wrote in 1954.

Rather than slow him down, the pressure he was under merely served to increase his determination to keep fighting for the causes he believed in. Robeson continued to raise his voice and speak throughout the US in solidarity with workers in struggle, with poor blacks suffering the degradation and humiliation of racist segregation, in solidarity with the Vietnamese struggle against French colonialism, against apartheid in South Africa, and for peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc.

Increasingly, the State Department began taking steps to silence him. In order to prevent him travelling overseas his passport was revoked.

Thereafter scheduled television appearances and concerts were cancelled and over five years from 1950-55 repeated applications for a passport to enable him to travel out of the US to make a living were denied by the US Passport Office. When in 1955 he appealed to the Supreme Court to have his passport reinstated, the judge presiding over the case implied that one may be issued to him if he agreed to sign a “non-communist oath.” Robeson refused.

During this period his career as a singer and performer dried up and with it his income, which plunged from $150,000 to $3,000 per year.

Finally, supported by an international campaign, Robeson was allowed to leave the US in 1958, embarking on an international itinerary which took him to London and then on to eastern Europe, where he was accorded a hero’s welcome. Appearing at a miners’ gala in Edinburgh to celebrate May Day in 1960, he told his audience: “My people were hewers of wood and drawers of water all over the Western world. Today on the continent of my forefathers, we are saying it is time for us to live a new life, time to be free.”

Though the 1960s marked a steady decline in his health, by its end the anathematisation he had suffered over many years gave way to a new appreciation of his life and convictions.

In 1971 his 1958 autobiography Here I Stand was reissued to critical and literary acclaim and in two years later a Salute to Paul Robeson concert was held at a sold-out Carnegie Hall in New York to celebrate his 75th birthday. Upon his death in January 1976, 5,000 people attended his funeral in Harlem.

What to make of such a rich life and how to begin to condense it into a film? Perhaps it is best to begin with its meaning, which in the case of Paul Robeson is surely that it is not what a man wins or gains that is the true mark of his success but what he is willing to sacrifice for a cause greater than himself.

6 thoughts on “Paul Robeson, new film coming

  1. Pingback: African American history, depicted in Jacob Lawrence’s paintings | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Paul Robeson 40 years dead. | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: Lorraine Hansberry’s play on colonialism in Africa | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  4. Pingback: Paul Robeson, African-American anti-racist singer, new biography | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  5. Pingback: Paul Robeson, new book | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  6. Pingback: Singer Paul Robeson, new book | Dear Kitty. Some blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.