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Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist - Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // February 13, 2007
List Price: $99.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ian Jane | posted February 9, 2007 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

A Renaissance man in the true sense of the word, Paul Robeson was born in New Jersey (his father a former slave who went on to become a preacher) and after graduating with honors from his high school he went on to post secondary education when he won a scholarship to Rutgers University. While attending, he played on the school football team where he was routinely picked on by other players because he was black – in fact, he was the only black student enrolled at the time. Showing the determination that would carry him throughout his career, he didn't let that stop him and he was selected as an All-American player twice and wound up graduating as the valedictorian.

Throughout his scholastic career, Robeson excelled in athletics but also showed a keen interest in the dramatic arts. From Rutgers he went on to Graduate from Columbia with a law degree but didn't stay in the field long and eventually he found himself moving from scholastic and athletic careers into the performing arts. He started in stage productions and then worked his way into film (many of his films were made in England) where he was a popular leading and singer man, which was quite a feat for a black American man at the time. Robeson later became an activist for human rights and soon found himself involved in many political causes through the forties and the fifties although his reported communist sympathies in the fifties did get him into trouble with the American government and his passport was revoked (though it was eventually returned eight years later). Unfortunately, his political leanings wound up having long lasting implications and much of his material – both music and film - was taken out of print for the next twenty-years or so, even the 1936 version of Show Boat (not the remake from the fifties), which is probably his best known film (everyone has heard him sing Old Man River).

The later part of Robeson's life is unusual in that once he had his passport back he spent most of his time in the UK where he did a lot of traveling. He apparently tried to commit suicide in 1961 (his family claims that the CIA drugged him!) and a few years after that he suffered from poor health until he passed away in 1976.

Needless to say, Robeson lead a very interesting life and it's this life and these achievements that are celebrated alongside a large portion of his filmography in the Criterion Collection boxed set release of Paul Robeson – Portraits Of The Artist. The fact that the man played such an important role in not only the early days of cinema but also in breaking down of racial barriers in America is reason enough to give the man his due but on top of that, as one journeys through this collection of material, he really was a great actor and an even better singer.


The Emperor Jones (1933)

Robeson plays Brutus Jones, a young black man from Georgia who has taken a job as a Pullman and, when we meet him, is saying goodbye to his friends, his family and his wife Dolly (Ruby Ellz) at a church meeting. His job takes him to New York City where he meets up with Undine (Fredi Washington), the girlfriend of his pal Jeff (Frank Wilson). The two hit it off and soon Brutus gets promoted to working in the President's car. This new found success doesn't last long, however and eventually he's sent back to Georgia.

Once back in Georgia, Brutus and Jeff play dice together and when the game goes sour, the two of them get into a brawl. He winds up killing Jeff and going to prison where he's forced to work on a chain gang, but Brutus is savvy enough to escape on a steamship and make his way to a remote island. When he arrives, he finds a bunch of black men with rifles who take him to their boss who in turn sells him to a slave trader named Smithers (Dudley Digges). After Brutus befriends Smithers he starts to work his way into the organization and soon enough he's overthrown the black man who runs the island and before you know it, Brutus has decided that he's the emperor of the island. It doesn't take long, however, for Brutus' backstabbing and selfishness to catch up with him, proving that even an emperor is not infallible.

Based on the play of the same name which in turn was based on the true to life story of Henri Christophe, Emperor Jones is a fascinating look at how power can corrupt. Robeson dominates the film in the lead and uses his impressive screen presence to maximum effect particularly during the last act of the picture. It's interesting and even tragic to watch as his character, who grew up poor and without much to start with, slowly but surely lets his innate sense of greed set in until he finally goes too far and everything comes full circle. Robeson brings a clever sense of arrogance to the part that really drives things home, particularly when he's cast alongside Fredi Washington, whose character is loyal to a fault which contrasts nicely against Robeson's Jones. Dudley Digges is as slimy as you'd expect him to be in the part, and he brings some interesting quirks to his part.

The movie was very obviously made in the 1930s and the portrayal of minority characters reflects this in a big way but there's no denying that this is Robeson's movie. Dudley Murphy's direction is strong and the movie is well paced and dramatic, making this film one of the highlights of an excellent set.

Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)

Saul J. Turell's Oscar winning 1979 documentary short film, Paul Robeson: Portrait Of An Artist is an interesting, if all too brief, look at the life and times of its subject. Narrated by none other than Sidney Poitier, this thirty-three minute movie provides biographical details on Robeson and it covers his life from the early days up until his death a few years before the short was made.

While a longer and more in depth biography would have been very welcome, this is a well made piece that features some great clips from Robeson's films and from some of his live concerts and it covers not only his life as a performer but also his work as an activist and his work in the political arena. Much of the material covered here is also touched upon in the commentaries and the extra features but as a primer or a way to get a quick and interesting look at who Paul Robeson was and what he stood for, this is a great little piece.


Body And Soul (1925)

This silent film from 1925, directed by Oscar Micheaux and based upon his novel of the same name, is presented on this DVD with a new musical score by jazz recording artist and composers Wycliffe Gordon.

Robeson, here in his film debut, plays a con artist named Isaiah who has escaped from prison and soon finds solace impersonating a minister. Robeson also plays Isaiah's brother, Sylvester, who is a man of strong moral standing and is actually pretty much the polar opposite of his shifty sibling. Soon, Isaiah and Sylvester both fall for a young lady named Isabelle (Mercedes Gilbert) who is pushed towards Isaiah by her mother who, believing him to be a true minister, figures he'd make a good husband. Soon, things turn ugly and Isaiah's true nature comes to light.

Body And Soul is an interesting movie even if it isn't very well made. Robeson is good here, again exuding a powerful screen presence and handling the noble role as well as the more sinister part with ease – no small feat considering that we can't hear him speak or sing in the movie. He is, in fact, the stand out from the picture. What makes the movie interesting is that there is only one white actor in the film, a meat seller who isn't exactly the nicest guy around town. Body And Soul also features a black performer in 'white face' (though it wasn't uncommon to see the reverse in movies of the era, this was a little more unusual to come across). Though it was made with a black cast and with black crew members for a black audience it doesn't do a particularly good job of furthering the black cause and sadly it's just as racist as many other films of the time.

Plenty of jump cuts and strange editing makes the movie a little hard to follow in spots and there are times where the movie really does feel like it was just slapped together, especially during the last third of the film where things just sort of stop making sense. Criterion presents the full strength 102 minute restored version of the film on DVD. Micheaux ran into censorship problems with the movie and had to trim portions of it to lessen the impact of the scandalous Reverend Isaiah. Though the movie fails in many regards as far as production values and the narrative structure are concerned, it's still an interesting curiosity item.

Borderline (1930)

The second silent film in this collection, directed by Kenneth MacPherson in 1930, features a new musical score by jazz recording artist Courtney Pine.

Dealing with some rather risqué, even taboo, themes for its day, the movie tells the complicated story of a black man named Pete (played by Robeson) and his wife, Adah (Eslanda Robeson). Their life becomes more complicated when Adah begins having an affair with a white man who lives in a hotel named Thorne (Gavin Arthur) who is married to a woman named Astrid (Hilda Doolittle). The woman who runs the hotel (who, it is implied, is having a lesbian affair with one of the barmaids in her employ) where Thorne lives turns a blind eye to his interracial affairs but before long he and Adah are found out and their actions are denounced by an old lady who lives in town and a few of the hotel bar's patrons. Pete and Adah try one last time to put things back together but it doesn't work and soon Adah leaves him to be with Thorne – but this plan is not without problems of its own as Astrid decides to pick up a knife and take matters into her own hands until everyone involved is finally forced to pay the consequences.

Written and directed by British filmmaker Kenneth MacPherson (rumored to himself have been bi-sexual in her personal life) in Switzerland, Borderline is both amazing and frustrating at the same time. What's impressive about the film is how it deals with racial issues and sexual issues long before this type of material was commonplace in cinema, and what's more impressive is that it handles this formerly taboo subjects quite intelligently. The movie doesn't so much cast fingers at the cast of immoral characters as it does at the townspeople and the society that condemns what they do not on a moral level but on a racial level. For a silent film there are very few intertitles here to explain what's going on and as such the audience is forced to figure things out on their own to a certain extent. Astrid's death isn't played out too clearly nor are the details surrounding Thorne's involvement or lack there of and this can cause some confusion. Ultimately, however, the movie is a genuinely interesting and very early look at how what is essentially a soap opera can be turned into an effective political statement of sorts. The film is fairly emotional and hardly the type of feel good material a lot of people associate with early dramatic films and MacPherson's direction is strong and it keeps the movie moving at a brisk pace.


Sanders of the River (1935)

Zoltan Korda's Sanders Of The River tells the story of a British Commissioner named Sanders (Leslie Banks) in Colonial Africa who is in charge of the various tribes that inhabit the area. He's managed to keep the peace for a few years now, mainly by keeping them afraid. When a man named Bosambo (Paul Robeson) escapes from prison and sets himself up as the chief of the Ochuri tribe, Sanders takes notice as he's operating without his sanction and, as such, is breaking the law.

Soon enough, Bosambo talks to Sanders and Sanders officially proclaims him chief of the tribe. All seems to be well until Sanders has to take care of Chief Mofolaba (Tony Wane) of another tribe who has been kidnapping people and forcing them into slavery. Sanders talks Bosambo and the Ochuri's to free the slaves and capture Mofolaba and they succeed though Mofolaba tells Bosambo that he will get him back. Bosambo meets a woman named Lilongo (Nina Mae McKinney) who was one of the slaves that he freed and they are soon wed. A few years later and the couple, now parents, are still going strong until Sanders decides to head back to London so that he too can get married. At this point, a few sinister smugglers tell the tribes that Sanders is dead and that the law is no more so that they can move in and sell them rifles and liquor. Mofolaba sees this as his chance to get back and Bosambo and, after killing the man hired to replace Sanders, Ferguson (Martin Walker), he has Lilongo kidnapped in order to lure Bosambo into a trap so that he can finally exact his revenge. What Mofolaba doesn't realize is that Sanders hasn't boarded his boat yet and he's still around even if the tribes don't know he is.

Based on the novel by Edgar Wallace, Sanders Of The River is a decent film even if its politics are questionable. Robeson reportedly tried to get the film blocked from distribution after he saw how blacks were portrayed in the movie, though his efforts were unsuccessful. Even if Robeson was understandably upset by the final version of the movie, he shines in his role as Bosambo and he brings a sense of class and dignity to the part. When he leads his warriors into battle by singing we're given a chance to hear just how strong his voice was and while the idea might sound hokey by modern standards, the scenes are handled well and hold up well today even if Robeson was right and the portrayal of blacks in the film is a little off putting in that it makes them look like savages compared to the noble Englishmen who have come to civilize them.

Director Zoltan Korda (who also shot the original The Four Feathers and Jungle Book) effectively creates some nice, tense scenes and he builds the story well. The camera work does a decent job of capturing some of the beautiful scenery of the area and the movie is quite impressive on a visual level.

Jericho (1937)

In World War One, Captain Mack (Henry Wilcoxon) runs his ship with a stern but fair hand and it's to the relief of the black men on board when he Jericho Jackson (Paul Robeson) a corporal. Things are going well for the crew until a German boat sends a torpedo into their hull and chaos erupts. As the ship starts to sink it looks like Sergeant Gamey (Rufus Fennell) is going to let the black sailors go down with the ship until Jericho steps in to let them out, knocking Gamey down in the process. Unfortunately, Gamey dies and despite protests from Mack, Jericho is found guilty of his murder and he is sent to prison.

On Christmas Eve, after singing with some of the other inmates, Jericho manages to snag himself a rifle and escape into the night. He teams up with Mike Clancy (Wallace Ford) and steals a sailboat and heads out to see while Mack is accused of aiding his escape and in turn imprisoned. Clancy and Jericho eventually wind up in the deserts of Northern Africa where Jericho marries a native girl named Gara (Princess Kouka) and eventually becomes chief of the tribe. A few years later, Mack is released from prison and he sees a newsreel and recognizes Jericho. He decides to head out and bring Jericho in so that he can clear his name, but Mack soon has a change of heart when he meets up with his former friend.

Directed by Thornton Freeland, Jericho almost seems like it was tailor made for Robeson's strongest assets. It gives the actor a chance to sing a few times and show off his strong voice as well as to portray a strong, black character of high moral standing and good intentions. Robeson makes the most of the opportunity and he's fantastic in the lead, even if the rest of the cast isn't up to his caliber in spots and the narrative meanders in some places. That being said, there's plenty of adventure and excitement in the picture along with some tense action scenes and a few strong dramatic moments. Strangely enough, many of the supporting black actors in the picture don't get to play characters with such dignity as Robeson does and they are more or less stereotypes. The cinematography is a strong point for the film as it does a great job of capturing the frightening beauty of the desert while the tribe moves around under Jericho's control.


The Proud Valley (1940)

In this film, directed by Pen Tennyson on year before his death in a plane crash at the age of only twenty-eight years of age (probably best known for his second unit work on Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Sabotage) Robeson plays David Goliath, a young man who lives in a small village in Wales. He soon lands himself a job in the mine that employs most of the men in the village, thanks in no small part to his powerful singing voice. The man in charge of the miner's choir, Perry (Simon Lack), figures with David on board it's as close to a sure thing as they can get to win the upcoming national singing contest. Unfortunately, an accident in the mine finds the shaft closed up and the majority of the town completely out of work.

The townsfolk know that the only work they'll ever have is in that mine and so they decide to go to London to protest the parent company's decision to shut things down but while they're there, the Second World War breaks out. The company figures it's best for the country if they reopen the mines but when things get dangerous underground again, the only man who can make a difference turns out to be David and it looks like, for the betterment of the community, he'll have to make the ultimate sacrifice.

With photography interrupted by the onset of the war, The Proud Valley went through its share of production difficulties and Tennyson had to deal with everything from trying to acquire a mine to shoot in to some of the cast and crew members having to go serve England in the war effort. Likewise, elements of the story were changed to remove what could have been considered a leftist leaning. Even with this obstacles, Tennyson turned in a fairly remarkable film thanks in no small part to Robeson who once again steals the show. With plenty of opportunity in the picture to sing, he makes the most of his commanding screen presence and is an absolute joy to watch in this humane and ultimately fairly uplifting film.

Native Land (1942)

Based on the Senate hearings of the La Follette Senate Civil Liberties Committee, Native Land uses expert historical re-enactment footage to detail the struggle of the American work force to unionize against the wishes of the corporations that employ them.

Written and directed by Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand and chillingly narrated by Paul Robeson (who also contributes a pair of musical numbers to the film's soundtrack), the film is obviously slanted heavily towards the left of the political spectrum but this bias doesn't in the least harm it's effectiveness or its historical importance. The film makes the point of showing how America's political interests of the time melded with the growth of corporate control and how unionization was being linked to the evils of socialism by those who wished to see the movement stopped in its tracks. On the other side of the coin, the filmmaker's manage to positively link the rise of the union with that of civil rights in America around the same time. Some of the re-enactments are quite striking in the way that they don't pull any punches while portraying how pro-union rallies were stopped and the scenes with the Klansmen in them are particularly unsettling.

Robeson, whose politics obviously aligned fairly closely with those of the filmmakers, does a fantastic job with the narration and it is quite obvious that rather than simply showing up to read the script he instead put quite a bit of thought into his delivery. The result is that the picture is quite dramatic and as such considerably more effective than it would have been had someone else handled the narrative duties.



All of the material here is presented fullframe (and with the exception of the documentary, it's all in black and white), which looks to be the original aspect ratio for which the films were composed. Considering how old much of this material is, the bulk of it looks surprisingly good (the one glaring omission being that Borderline is not flagged for progressive scan playback while the rest of the films are). Fine detail is hit or miss and it varies a fair bit and there is a noticeable amount of flicker here and there but everything here is perfectly watchable even if it doesn't look like Criterion has done a frame by frame restoration for any of these films.


The movies that feature sound are presented in their original mono mixes while the two silent films have new scores laid out over top, also in mono. The 'talkies' have a bit of hiss here and there but are otherwise perfectly fine and again, when you take into account how old this material is, the films actually sound surprisingly good. Optional subtitles are provided for the eight movies in this set in English only.


As one would expect, Criterion has spread the supplements for this release across the four discs in the set. Here's what you'll find should you choose to dig deeper into the set:


The first disc in the set starts off nicely with an audio commentary for The Emperor Jones courtesy of cultural historian Jeffrey C. Stewart of George Mason University. Stewart explains how when this film was made, Robeson was at the top of his game and proud of his work and how audiences came to see the film for a chance to hear him speak and sing on film. He also speaks how black people are portrayed as primitive in the film and how the modern blacks in the U.S. 'possess the same primitive culture as those in South Africa.' He talks about the differences between the film and the play that it was based on, and the importance that flashbacks play in the story. Stewart lends some really interesting insight into the picture, explaining how Robeson's character is like a black Adam kicked out of Eden and pointing out smaller details like how one specific scene is based on the Cotton Club and pointing out a tap dance routine from a young Harold Nicholas. He also notes how the ethics of colonialism have an effect on Robeson's character and how there are some interesting parallels in the film to a few different real life events, explaining the significance of the mirrors used in the film. Throughout the commentary, Stewart keeps the information coming at a very decent pace without beating us over the head. He's got a pleasant speaking voice and he does a fantastic job of explaining the intricacies of the picture and the historical significance of it and of its male lead.

An all new documentary entitled Our Paul: Remembering Paul Robeson (19:06) is up next and it features interviews with filmmaker William Greaves who appears here alongside actors Ruby Dee and James Earl Jones. A few clips from his films are used to illustrate the man's talent while the interviewees discuss their admiration for Robeson and explain why they're so enamored with him and his work. There are some interesting behind the scenes pictures in here, alongside some thoughtful insight into how Robeson used his celebrity status to, as Ruby Dee puts it, 'define social responsibility.' Jones describes him as a great talent and explains how Robeson elevated the character of Othello with his performance, while Greaves talks about how he was once asked to play an Uncle Tom character and how Robeson influenced him to instead get behind the camera to try and portray blacks with some dignity.

Robeson on Robeson (11:10), a new interview with Paul Robeson Jr. about his father's career and art, and explains how, since his father's death, he's dedicated his life to preserving his work and documenting his life. Robeson Jr. explains how despite the fact that his father played some stereotypes in his work, in the twenties and thirties when these movies were made the culture of the world was very different. He explains how Eugene O'Neill actually tried to capture some of Robeson's spirit and he talks about the hypocrisy of how certain middle class black people in the United States would badmouth his father for his work. There's a fair bit of focus in this piece given to Emperor Jones and how that picture made his father the number one black actor in America and how when the emergence of sound came into play, he figured he could write his own ticket based on his singing ability. Again, clips and personal photographs are used to illustrate certain events and make certain points while a few clips of Robeson's music also bring some impact to this very interesting interview with someone who obviously knew Paul Robeson on a very personal level.


Aside from the menu and chapter selection options, the only extra features on this disc are two essays on the scores and an audio commentary for Body And Soul from Oscar Micheaux historian Pearl Bowser. This commentary is concerned more with the film's director than with the star but it's quite interesting nonetheless. Bowser talks about how Micheaux took pieces from various plays that were popular at the time and explains how the way he introduces his characters puts them right into the story and how this lets us immediately identify with their role in the film. She notes how Micheaux made roughly forty-five films in his career and is the first African American director to be credited with directing a feature length film but how many of his pictures have been lost to time. Race Movies are covered in a fair bit of detail, where the term came from and how certain words were used. She also talks quite a bit about how Micheaux tried to get a sense of community into many of his films and how much of what we see in the film is characteristic of the way that people lived in the South of the United States around the time that this movie was made and how the Bible could become a history of a family after it had been around for a few years. She also points out how Michaeux's film points out the hypocrisy of 'one day a week' churchgoers and how much of this comes through in Robeson's character. This is a very detailed and well thought out talk that covers pretty much every critical aspect of the film you could want it to. Like the commentary on the first disc, it's well paced and quite an enjoyable listen.


The third disc in the set features True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson (33:20) which is a documentary that features interviews with Paul Robeson Jr. and film historians Stephen Bourne and Ian Christie. Also included here are film clips from three of Robeson's films from the era - Song of Freedom, King Solomon's Mines, and Big Fella. The focus of the documentary is on the six films that Robeson made while living in London over a twelve-year period of time. Christie details Robeson's background and explains how he became a star while Bourne's focus leans more towards Robeson's politics and how his star power give him the option to be critical and vocal. Robeson Jr. explains how his father was sometimes conflicted over how to reach people with his message without compromising his art, and how his father got quite upset over Sanders Of The River after being mislead about how the film would portray his character and other black characters. The interviewees explain how Robeson got a lot of black people work while he was in England and how a few other black actors from the United States followed his lead and came to England where it was easier for them to get good parts in better movies. Robeson Jr. lends some interesting insight into Jericho and how the movie was unusual in that it broke the taboo of portraying a black man as a genuine hero and how the various messages of the film set it apart from many other pictures of its time and how for once a black man was shown as having a white sidekick. It's all well researched and it paints a very interesting portrait of Robeson's time in the United Kingdom.


The main extra on the last disc in the set is The Story of Native Land (13:28), which is a new on camera video interview with cinematographer Tom Hurwitz who is the son of Frontier Films co-founder and Native Land co-director Leo Hurwitz. This documentary explains the production history of the film and how the political climate at the time of its release played a large part in how it was ultimately received. Hurwitz explains how Robeson's narration and music played such an important part in the effect that the film ultimately had and how Robeson came to be involved with the project in the first place. There are plenty of clips from the picture used here while Hurwitz talks to how the unions rose to power and how the ultimately changed the scope of the American work place. He also talks about where and how the Ku Klux Klan scenes were shot and why they were used they way they were in the movie. Interestingly enough, the production kept running out of money and it wound up taking five years to get the picture finished.

The 1958 Pacifica Radio Interview With Paul Robeson (31:05) is fantastic as it allows Robeson, in his own words, to explain how and why his U.S. passport was taken away and why he refused to sign a document claiming that he was not a communist. Broken up into seven chapters, this interview covers Robeson's early years, his time in London, how he came to commit himself to the humanitarian causes he found himself aligned with, and his thoughts on the 'power of Negro action.' They also discuss how Robeson tries to use his art and his acting to make a difference, before covering the passport controversy and finally the important role that his faith and his family (at the time he had two grandchildren from his son's mixed marriage to a Jewish woman) play in his life. Robeson comes across as a gracious and friendly man even when the discussion gets a little heated at times, and he proves to be a well spoken and interesting interview subject.

Also included with this set is a fairly lavish book which includes an excerpt from Paul Robeson's 1958 book Here I Stand, news essay on Robeson and his work by Clement Alexander Price, Hilton Als, Charles Burnett, Ian Christie, Deborah Willis, and Charles Musser, an interesting article by Harlem Renaissance writer Geraldyn Dismond which was originally published in that paper, and a note from Pete Seeger.

Final Thoughts:

While the age of this material means that the presentation isn't going to be completely spotless, the content holds up well and the supplements that the Criterion Collection has compiled to accompany the films in this set add a tremendous amount of value. The end result is that Paul Robeson – Portraits Of The Artist is a thorough and fascinating look at the life and work of a truly interesting, talented and influential man. Highly recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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