Now that the Cold War is over, maybe Paul Robeson can finally get a little respect
(Originally published in Time Out New York, 1/15/98.)
Jeffrey Stanley is the author of Joe Glory, a script about the Peekskill riots, written for director Barbara Kopple. “Paul Robeson, A Centennial Retrospective” runs January 16-27 at Film Forum.
If Bugs Bunny can have a stamp, why not Paul Robeson? One of the greatest entertainers of the century, Robeson was a Broadway legend (one of the first black Othellos), an opera singer, a movie star and an outspoken political gadfly at a time when so-called Sambo roles were the norm for mainstream black performers.
Blackballed for his politics, Robeson is only now–on the centennial anniversary of his birth–receiving a measure of the respect that was denied him during his lifetime. In addition to receiving a posthumous Grammy, he’ll be honored with special events in LA and Chicago, and beginning January 16, Film Forum will screen a retrospective of his films. But the stamp is just too much to ask: last month, the idea was rejected despite nearly 90,000 signatures on his behalf.
As Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones–a role for which the Columbia law-school graduate was handpicked by the playwright–Robeson became the first black actor on the white stage to portray a character who was not a stereotype. Possessed of a mesmerizing baritone purr, he sang in some 20 languages. And his commitment social justice would shame today’s most committed Hollywood celebs: in 1933, he gave all his earnings from the film All God’s Chillun Got Wings to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.
Between 1924 and 1943, he starred in 11 pictures, including the screen version of The Emperor Jones and black auteur Continue reading “The Last Emperor”