Paul Robeson (1979)
Paul Robeson was a giant of a man, not only physically but also in the way he strode across the first half of the 20th century. Excelling in sports, acting and most notably singing, he utilised his fame to fearlessly advocate for the rights of the working class throughout the world. Yet he became ostracised in his own land when, more than fifteen years before Muhammed Ali, he reportedly questioned why African-Americans would fight in a foreign war when they lacked civil rights at home. A hero to many, Robeson’s story demands a biopic as dynamic as the man himself. Sadly, this filmed play isn’t it.
James Earl Jones is not to blame. Obviously under the weather during this particular performance, Jones rarely gets the chance to engage the viewer. Though his mastery of emotions is seen to good advantage when mourning the loss of a loved one or raging against HUAC, the actor’s diminished capacity is otherwise unable to overcome the failings of the playwright. Using a Carnegie Hall tribute to the artist as a launching pad, the text meanders between some key-points in Robeson’s life while neglecting many significant others. Musical accompaniment is provided by Burt Wallace as Robeson’s frequent collaborator Lawrence Brown. Alas, the rich dulcet tones of Jones’ speaking voice does not automatically translate into the beautiful bass baritone of Robeson’s vocals.
A scene in which the singer is mistaken for boxer Jack Johnson is an unfortunate reminder that Jones’ portrayal of Robeson exhibits none of the power he displayed in The Great White Hope (1970), the film adaptation of his Tony Award winning performance.
as Paul Robeson
as Lawrence Brown
Biopic features no scene recreations from Robeson’s movies. Though a lead actor in Britain, Robeson’s American movies (apart from reprising his role as Joe in Show Boat) were limited to independent films.
'The National Ad Hoc Committee to End the Crimes Against Paul Robeson' took out a two-page advertisement in the January 1978 edition of Variety to protest the play's depiction of Paul Robeson. It stated in part -
Shortly, the play “Paul Robeson” will open on Broadway. We the undersigned members of the Black community, having seen the production or read versions in progress, regretfully feel compelled to take the extraordinary step of alerting all concerned citizens to what we believe to be, however unintended, a pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson… a rewriting of history is as perverse in its way as the original attempt to erase history: a tissue of invention and distortions ranging from the most elementary facts of the man’s youth, aspirations and development; of the role of his father, his brothers, his wife; to the simplest chronological events of his life and career – all presumably in the effort to create “acceptable” motivation to soften the genuine ones.
Amongst the 51 members of the committee were Paul Robeson Jr, Coretta Scott King, Maya Angelou and Julian Bond.
Protesters Picket Play
(29th Dec 1977)