Renaissance Men of the Cinema
Welcome to the first installment of “Renaissance Men of the Cinema.” In this article I write about men and women who either pioneered the art of cinema or whose influence and/or personal interests went beyond the celluloid. It is my mission to bring these people to the forefront of the reader’s mind, causing them to seek out the artist’s work and history.
Paul Robeson may not be a very familiar name. I doubt many will even know who I am talking about. You may recognize Robeson through this:
Ol’ Man River became a song that would forever be associated with Robeson. Over the course of his life he would changed the lyrics of the song to compliment his world views. These changing views would cause Robeson to advocate for civil rights that would cause him fall into obscurity. So, if Robeson is not really a well known figure in today’s age why am I choosing to write about him? The fact that the cast of Jersey Shore are better known than someone who actually deserves to be recognized and has a great legacy is enough of a reason, but there is more to the story.
It was only a little over a year ago that I heard of Robeson. I was hanging out in the office of my Acting II professor with a couple of my colleagues waiting for class to start. After a bit of conversation one of my fellow classmates point to a picture of a man sitting on a table. “Who is that?” he asked. My professor looked at the picture, smiled, and said “That is Paul Robeson. He was a great actor and singer…” He continued on about how Robeson studied and practiced law as well as being a performer on a world stage. Since then, I wanted to look more into Paul Robeson’s work. When it came time to start this new series, I figured an actor who studied and practiced law while performing on a worldwide level would be a good start. Little did I know how much more to the man there was to discover.
Over the course of his life, Robeson faced much adversity. Born in 1898, Robeson was the youngest of five children of a prominent family in Princeton, New Jersey. After a disagreement between his father, Rev. William Robeson, and the congregation of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 1900, William Robeson was forced out of his ministry and had to work odd jobs. Three years later, Robeson’s mother, Maria Bustill, died in a house fire. William ended up moving his family into an attic of a friend due to the financial instability. It was not until age 12 that Robeson’s father found stability in a parsonage.
Two years later, Robeson attended high school where he acted in the school productions of Othello and Julius Caesar, sang in the choir, and dominated in sports, which incurred prejudice and racial insults from competition. Robeson continued with his education at Rutgers University, becoming the third man of color to attend the school. There he excelled in his academics, joined the debate team and glee club, and played football after passing extra “tests” set by other student trying out. In his junior and senior years, Robeson became Rutgers first All-American for football. Robeson was also voted as the valedictorian by his classmates, and in his speech Robeson called for the equality of all Americans.
After college, he went to study law at Columbia School of Law in New York. In order to help pay his way through school, Robeson continued to play football in the National Football League, where he played for the Akron Pros and later the Milwaukee Badgers. Outside of football season, Robeson performed Off-Broadway where he caught the eye of playwright Eugene O’Neil. Through O’Neil, Robeson performed on Broadway in The Emperor Jones, where he achieved success despite his lack of proper training in acting. The story goes that part of the script called for Robeson, as Brutus Jones, to whistle with his hands in his pockets. After Robeson told O’Neil that he could not whistle, O’Neil suggested that he should improvise by humming or singing. Robeson chose to sing, and the rest became history.
After his success on Broadway, Robeson starred in his first movie entitled Body and Soul in 1924. Body and Soul saw Robeson playing a duel role as an escaped convict posing as a preacher of a small Baptist church and his long-estranged twin brother. A race film directed by Oscar Micheaux, Body and Soul had Robeson play a very dark character in a role that involved a very cleverly shot scene that heavily suggested that a rape occurred. Controversial for have a member of the cloth performing a supposed rape, the censors eventually allowed film to be screened with the scene intact for reason not completely known, though it is believed that it is maybe because of the racial thought at the time that a black man would be more likely to commit a rape. This would be the darkest role Robeson ever played, but it would also gain him even more notoriety, though not like what was to come.
In 1928, Paul Robeson played Joe in the London production of Show Boat. His portrayal of Joe, as well as his version of Ol’ Man River, became the standard of which the role would be judged. It is also a role that would cement Robeson as an icon of his time. After his performance, he continued to perform concerts all over the world.
One concert became that of legends in 1936. During the Spanish Civil War, Robeson performed a concert in a small town where a battle was taking place. According to records, the fighting stopped for an entire day after Robeson’s deep baritone voice was put over loud speakers. It is here where the words of Ol’ Man Riverfirst changed, from “I get weary, and sick of trying/ I’m tired of living, and scared of dying” to “But I keep laughing, instead of crying/ We must keep fighting, until we’re dying.”
In total, Robeson starred in eleven movies. Each movie showed his natural acting ability at a time when system and method acting were not yet taught in America. More so, all of his films post-1930 features his singing voice. Even the film version of The Emperor Jones, which featured almost no singing outside of the one scene previously mentioned, added a back story to the character of Brutus Jones just to allow Robeson more screen time to sing. And as his celebrity status grew, he only became more selective of his roles. Robeson chose only roles that would, in his opinion, bring dignity to his people. The film he claimed to be most proud of, The Proud Valley, featured an integrated cast and a positive view of coal miners and labor workers.During the outbreak of World War II, Paul Robeson was selected to sing Ballad for Americans, which was used to stir up patriotism for the fight over seas. And at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral, Robeson was elected by his fellow actors to read their farewell to the president. It was also around this time that he would play the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello on a Broadway stage. It would later be known as one of the best performances of the character and the longest running production of a Shakespeare play in Broadway history, playing for two years.Robeson started touring Europe at the end of World War II, performing concerts throughout the continent. It was during this time that the lyrics of Ol’ Man Riverchanged once more; adding a new opening that went “There’s an ol’ man named the Mississippi, That’s the ol’ man I don’t want to be,” and “Get a little drunk and you land in jail” changed to “Show a little grit and you land in jail.” Robeson also started talking out at his concerts, advocating for civil rights across the world. This caused an uproar in the town of Peekskill, New York, during the start of tour for his return to America. Not long after this uprising, The United States Government revoked his visas to travel outside the States, fearing his conflicting beliefs of the time could ruin America’s reputation. This caused him to be blacklisted, and as a result Robeson swore to never act again.
For the next ten years Paul Robeson practiced law in the courts, civil liberties, and for cases he felt that injustice was done. At the same time began fighting the Supreme Court on his ban from leaving America. After ten years, he finally won the battle and gained his right to leave the country, but the damage was done. He never performed on the grand scale he had in the past. After two small tours in Europe and Australia, Robeson retired from performing and took residency in Philadelphia where he lived out the rest of his days.Paul Robeson was the true embodiment of a renaissance man. He used his standing as a world icon and his arts to push his beliefs in civil rights while at the same time he practiced law and protected those he felt were wronged. A proven intellectual, Robeson helped shed light on a dignity his people own, and he peacefully faded into the shadows after his fight was won. While his name may not be as well known as it should be, his is a legacy that will always be felt.
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