Whatever the merits of that position, you have to wonder: Without the every-February ritual, how many commercial enterprises would be willing to gamble on issuing a $100 DVD box set devoted to Paul Robeson? Criterion’s Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist, released last month, is just that — and a reminder, as well, of the swaths of African-American history that remain provocative and ripe for rediscovery.
Even the leaders of the Civil Rights era, after all, had trouble embracing this figure, a remarkable man who had done things only whites were supposed to do back before Martin Luther King, Jr. was even born. Robeson was an honor student and star athlete at Rutgers in the teens; played Othello with a white supporting cast; and became an international singing star, only to sacrifice a lucrative career rather than stay quiet about his political convictions.
Those convictions — he was a devoted Communist — are rarely spelled out in Portraits, which gathers an impressive range of vintage material but stops short of commissioning the thorough biographical doc that would make the set a must-see. The closest we get here is Tribute to an Artist, a half-hour film from 1979 in which Sidney Poitier praises a man who “spoke out for what he believed” and recounts the price he paid (from having his passport revoked to being wiped out of college-football record books), but never dares to make Robeson’s message plain.
That doc does, however, boast a healthy array of vintage newsreels and clips from films (including Show Boat, which is sadly not included here) that made him a star. The rest of the four-disc collection amplifies this material, offering seven feature-length films from 1925 to 1942. They range from adventure stories where the actor’s good intentions were stifled (Sanders of the River, a yarn about British colonialism in which he plays a relatively one-dimensional Nigerian chief) to Oscar Micheau’s Body and Soul, and avant-garde European curiosities like Borderline.
The most effective mix of politics and aesthetics here is 1942’s Native Land. Co-directed and shot by famed photographer Paul Strand, the feature begins as a patriotic tone poem in the mode of Russian pioneer Sergei Eisenstein, whom Robeson had met in the ’30s: Heroic shots of the Statue of Liberty are juxtaposed with towering pines; factories and assembly lines are offered as embodiments of the American spirit.
Eventually, the script nudges Strand’s artful compositions aside, presenting dramatic vignettes in which ordinary workers find themselves in need of the liberties they take for granted. Robeson narrates throughout, and occasionally breaks into song — his rich baritone reliably potent, even when the tune’s forgettable.
Native Land presents labor struggling against capital on proudly American terms. To see Robeson embrace other nations, you’ll have to pick up Speak of Me As I Am, a BBC documentary recently issued by Kultur and not included in the Criterion set. Here, Pam Grier’s narration isn’t shy about the actor/activist’s leanings, and fills in biographical details omitted in Portraits of the Artist. We hear about his embrace of Communism, his unwillingness to criticize Soviet leaders’ excesses, and his assertions that he only really understood his African roots after moving to London.
Speak of Me freely acknowledges the way of thinking that caused people to be ambivalent about Robeson during his life, and the worldviews he held that perhaps prompted his exclusion from being among the first names mentioned on the Black History Month honor roll. But the filmmakers are adamant that a man of Robeson’s gifts and integrity deserves more praise than he gets.