Quai de Branly museum features Paul Robeson, America's first black movie star
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Paris’s Quai Branly Museum is dedicating an exhibit to US entertainer Paul Robeson, Hollywood’s first black star. Long blacklisted for his Communist sympathies, Robeson was finally redeemed shortly before failing health forced his retirement.
With his imposing physique and American football prowess, Paul Robeson could have been a star athlete. With his Columbia law degree, he could have been a star lawyer. The son of a pastor who escaped slavery, he could have been a Martin Luther King, rekindling people’s faith in God and humanity despite adversity. But Paul Robeson made his name in the pictures, breaking into cinema in 1920s Hollywood, the beginning of a journey chronicled in a Quai Branly exhibition in the French capital that runs through October 13. Paradoxically, it was in a silent film that Robeson, who had a remarkable deep voice, first caught notice in 1925, playing a fake pastor defrauding his parish. He was 27 at the time.
Robeson lit up the screen, gaining acclaim in roles once occupied by white actors made up in “blackface”. As his filmography grew, the Princeton-born actor’s name on the marquee became a draw in itself, as in “The Emperor Jones” (1933) where he played an escaped convict who proclaims himself the emperor of a remote Caribbean island.
The handsome Robeson also boasted a bass-baritone singing voice that made his rendition of “Ol’ Man River”, the emancipation hymn he sang in the 1936 film version of “Showboat”, an instant classic.
To make his name on the stage, Robeson had had to cross the Atlantic. He wasn’t the first to make the trip; Ira Aldridge – famed for his portrayal of Othello, Shakespeare’s Moorish hero, on the London stage – had already charted that course as early as 1825. Robeson would reprise the role at London’s Savoy Theatre. For him, Othello was political. “I feel the play is so modern, for the problem is the problem of my own people,” Robeson told a reporter in 1930. “It is a tragedy of racial conflict, a tragedy of honour rather than jealousy.”
In Europe, Robeson could be up front with his socialist activism. He joined the troupe of the Unity Theatre, engaged in the workers’ struggle and travelled to Spain to support the republican left. The American entertainer was even welcomed with much pomp in Moscow, where he would record the Soviet anthem. Everywhere, he sang “Ol’ Man River”, adapting its lyrics to jettison the sense of resignation and declare his hope for a better world. His rendition of “Joe Hill”, the ode to a Swedish-born labour activist executed in Utah in 1915, had Robeson always singing the last couplet – “’I never died,” said he” – in a ghostly mezzo-voce.
It was as Othello that Robeson returned to New York in triumph on Broadway. When the US press asked the actor if he had renounced his political ideas, he answered with a resolute “no”. “I’m acting… and I’m talking for the Negroes in the way only Shakespeare can. This play is about the problem of minority groups. It concerns a blackamoor, who tried to find equality among whites. It’s right up my alley,” Robeson said in 1943. The FBI kept a close watch on his activities and revoked his passport in 1950.
The entertainer’s career was revived only once the document was returned to him in 1958, once again permitting travel to Europe. In the US, too, doors began opening again. In May 1958, he gave a recital at New York’s hallowed Carnegie Hall.
But Robeson’s redemption, and the entreaties for him to join the frontlines of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, came too late. His health was failing. His son would later suspect the CIA of having poisoned him. Roberson died in Harlem in 1976 at the age of 77.
Robeson’s life was long absent from the history books, likely ostracised for his ties to the Soviet regime, reduced to an apologist for Communist propaganda and, with the Cold War raging, to a US turncoat.
But one anecdote provides a measure of the man and does justice to Robeson’s outspokenness. In 1949, he was invited to Moscow for the 150th anniversary of Alexander Pushkin’s birth. Before gathered dignitaries, the American sang “Zog nit keyn mol”, a Holocaust survivor hymn inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The American entertainer had learned rudiments of Yiddish in the company of Ashkenazi actors in London.
During that soiree in Moscow, the bass baritone thus paid homage to two friends he had met in the Soviet Union’s Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, each of whom had recently been targets of anti-Semitic purges: actor and theatre company director Solomon Mikhoels, murdered a year earlier, and poet Itzik Feffer, then imprisoned and later killed. That night, Robeson openly defied the Soviet regime. Only those present could have known as much. The recording of the event was lost in the web of Stalin-era censorship.
Paul Robeson (1898-1976) ‘Un homme du Tout-monde’ runs through October 13 at the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac in Paris.
This article has been translated from the original in French.