A really interesting film that is almost as provocative now as when it was originally released. It’s not an easy film, but one that rewards effort handsomely.
The idea, as part of the larger celebration of Black History Month, is to write about either a great film performance by a black actor, or about why the career of a particular black actor is great.
As you’ll see as we get into this film, I tried to do a bit of both, by focusing on perhaps the first great black actor Paul Robeson, and on another film in the phenomenal, and essential, Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist set.
This film follows two married couples, one white and one black. The black wife, Adah, has been having an affair with the white husband, Thorne, much to the dismay of his white wife Astrid. They’re all staying in a guest house in a small town when the black husband, Paul Robeson’s Pete, comes back to try and reconcile with Adah. This sets a bunch of activity in motion and the rest of the film follows the chaos that ensues.
Additionally, the film shows the mood of the rest of the residents of the guest house, as well as the locals who frequent the bar. Racial tensions are brewing, as much of the clientele is displeased with the idea of the white man Thorne being involved with the black woman Adah.
There’s something really sad about modern day America, in that we’ve forgotten so many of our heroes. Our culture has adopted an increasingly intense recency bias towards our own history. We ignore or forget everything that happened before, creating cycles of the same turmoil and trauma.
This, and of course pervasive institutional racism, are the only explanations I can come up with for the lack of mainstream American awareness of the life of the great Paul Robeson. A man who worked for, and achieved, an almost unfathomable amount of great things.
He was the first African American person to appear in a staring film role, in The Emperor Jones, something that didn’t happen again in the United States for more than two decades. He toured in support of the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, fighting against Fascism. He did the same thing in this country during WWII. He attempted to get Baseball to break the color barrier 4 years earlier than they did.
These things alone would be impressive, but they represent a tiny portion of his incredible life.
His activism was so successful in fact, so substantive, that the State Department actually took away his passport for a decade, saying that it would be dangerous to the country if he traveled abroad. It was eventually restored to him by the Supreme Court, after a huge victory for freedom of speech. He immediately embarked on a world tour.
This is a man who was blacklisted and fought back. Who was attacked and fought back. Who was treated in ways that denied the basic reality of his humanity, and who fought back and won.
This is a man we should be shouting about from the rooftops. Someone who should be taught about in every school. He hasn’t been entirely forgotten, I don’t want to imply that. The 1979 short film Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist won an Academy Award. Supposedly Steve McQueen’s next film will be about his life, something that would do wonders for his visibility in more modern times. There are things named after him, he is lauded.
But still, I feel like a man of his towering achievements, and his lifelong struggle to do what was right, deserves far more attention that he gets.
On top of all that, he was also a great actor, something that is plain even in his limited role in this film. It’s no surprise, given what I’ve said about his history, that Robeson involved himself in this groundbreaking examination of racism, homophobia, and inter-racial relationships. I can’t even imagine how shocked those who saw in the 30s must have been.
It was scandalous when it was released, and I don’t think it’s lost much of that power even now. In many ways this film feels extremely relevant for our continued modern day struggles with so many of these issues.
It’s a difficult film, full of Eisensteinian montage and inner turmoil. Much like Body and Soul, it’s straining against the limitations of the silent film era, in an attempt to tell a very involved story. If you can see past all of that though, there’s a ton to discover, and a lot of that is Robeson.
As I mentioned in Body and Soul, he towers over the other actors he’s on screen with. He just had such a luminous quality, that even without his incredible voice he comes across with such power and grace. This film was considered lost for a long time; we are all so lucky that it was found.