The Last Emperor

Now that the Cold War is over, maybe Paul Robeson can finally get a little respect

(Originally published in Time Out New York, 1/15/1998)

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.

Big Fella: Robeson reconsidered.

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 Oscar Michaeux’s silent Body and Soul.  Many of these films were radically progressive at the time and remain so today.  “Even in the bad films,” says Paul Robeson Jr., who will present two lectures during the series, “he changed the representation of black male from dehumanized to human.”

In Big Fella, a Diff’rent Strokes in reverse, Robeson stars as a poor dockworker who unofficially adopts a rich white kid.  In Song of Freedom, Robeson plays another poor dockworker who parlays his singing ability into a trip to Africa after discovering his royal lineage.  Robeson even managed to include a political message in his famous rendition of Show Boat‘s “Old Man River,” changing the lyric “I’m tired of livin’ and feared of dyin’” to “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’.”  No wonder most of his films were made in Britain.

Robeson’s struggle didn’t end at the movie house.  Having visited the Soviet Union numerous times, he insisted that socialism would be a great antidote to American racism.  He also purportedly declared that in a war with the Soviets, segregated black Americans would never “fight against their friends on behalf of their enemies.”

Coupled with what Robeson Jr. calls his father’s “cultural challenge” to white America, that sort of talk was enough to doom Robeson’s career.  Soon his records were removed from music-store shelves, radio stations refused to play his songs, and he was placed under government surveillance.  In 1949, he held two concerts in Peekskill, New York, both of which ended in riots between his fans and local veterans’ groups.  Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Robeson was asked why he didn’t just move to Russia.  “Because my father was a slave,” he replied, “and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here and have a part of it, just like you.  And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it.  Is that clear?”  It was.

Robeson was not a member of the Communist Party or any other political party, but that didn’t stop the government from revoking his passport on suspicion that he was a Soviet spy.  Nearly a decade later, he regained his passport and resumed his singing career in Europe with no regrets.  He died in 1976, his extraordinary contributions all but forgotten. Fortunately, that could change.  With the Cold War and Jim Crow behind us, the country may finally be ready to forgive and forget.  Even if the Postal Service isn’t.

UPDATE:  In January, 2004 the US Postal Service finally issued a Paul Robeson stamp: