Criterion // 2007 // 516 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // March 1st, 2007
A marginalized man reborn!
It's so easy to name all the things Paul Robeson was: son of an ex-slave who himself went on to graduate from college and become a minister; only the third black student ever accepted at Rutgers (and the only one on campus at the time); astar athlete and All-American; valedictorian; law school graduate and practicing attorney; singer; concert virtuoso; writer; thinker; activist; Socialist; Broadway star; Shakespearean actor; enemy of the United States; self-exiled expatriate -- that it's easy to forget what he's not. A superstar. Granted, he's a well-worn icon in the world of ethnic entertainers, a premier example of stoicism and skill overcoming some of the most tenuous and tumultuous times in American history. Yet no matter how many degrees he hung on his wall or battles he chose to fight for both himself and his people, the films he made are not the missing masterpieces in the overall history of African-American cinema. Instead, they are obvious examples of one amazing human figure being improperly pigeonholed within a horribly racist entertainment dynamic. That's the chief revelation to be gleaned from the Criterion Collection's new box-set release, Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist. His body of work may be impressive for what it means, given the background of when and where it was created. But this is a clear case of the whole being much more valuable than the many pieces that comprise it.
He only made 11 films in his lifetime, mostly because he was disgusted by the kinds of roles Hollywood offered minorities. He also lent his name to a well-meaning documentary about the plight of justice and equality in the United States. Of his creative canon, only a few select titles stand out. As part of this Criterion Collection box set, six of Robeson's starring roles are present. Missing of course are Show Boat, Song of Freedom, King Solomon's Mines, Big Fella, and Tales of Manhattan. While this might disturb some purists, it's also worth noting that this compilation contains his earliest silent films as well as his best0known performance in the Eugene O'Neill narrative The Emperor Jones. Specifically, here is what this impressive package has to offer:
Body and Soul (1925)
An escaped criminal posing as a preacher (Paul Robeson) stumbles upon a small town, where he quickly begins bilking the residents out of their hard-earned dollars. He shakes down a small-time club owner who runs an illegal gambling racket on the side, and even violates a naïve young girl after befriending her spiritually oriented mother. But when a recently released cellmate shows up in town, the Reverend's grifting ways may be exposed once and for all.
In a racist European town, the relationship between a married white man and an African-American girl stuns everyone -- all, that is, except the patrons of a bar run by two liberal women. They even allow a black visitor named Pete (Paul Robeson) to stay in their boarding house. Pete once loved the adulterous woman and he still has strong feelings for her. But the desperate spouse of the cheating husband is put on edge by the scandalous affair -- and has revenge on her mind.
The Emperor Jones (1933)
After getting a job with the Pullman Train Company as a porter, small-town dreamer Brutus Jones (Paul Robeson) gets taken in by big-city life. Before you know it, he's stealing his best friendÂ's gal pal and gambling away his paycheck. When a bar fight turns fatal, Jones goes to jail. He escapes and steals aboard a commercial liner bound for the Caribbean. Looking to the nearest island for sanctuary, he jumps ship and ends up in a tiny village run by a crooked king. It's not long before Jones takes over, and turns despotic.
Sanders of the River (1935)
Lord "Sandi" (Leslie Banks, Jamaica Inn) Sanders is the British District Officer of Nigeria, charged by the crown to maintain the law up and down the river. The tribes all palaver with the cunning bureaucrat, a man they've come to fear and respect -- all except one. King Mofolaba fancies himself above the English and causes random chaos for the surrounding citizenry. When a new chieftain, Bosambo (Paul Robeson), approaches Sandi regarding the situation, he is given the promise of power. But after taking matters into his own hands, Bosambo is targeted by Mofolaba's warriors. In the end, it is Sandi who must save the day.
While crossing the Atlantic on their way to World War I, a boat loaded with U.S. soldiers is struck by a torpedo. During the response, likable Lt. Jericho Jackson (Paul Robeson) accidentally kills a superior officer. The resulting court martial condemns him to death. On Christmas Eve, a desperate Jericho escapes, steals a fishing boat, and makes his way to Africa. Along for the ride is a wisecracking expatriate named Mike Clancy (Wallace Ford, A Patch of Blue). Soon, the pair finds themselves living amongst one of the many desert tribes. Jericho becomes a leader, and helps guide the people toward prosperity. In the meantime, a friend and fellow solider, Captain Mack (Henry Wilcoxon, Caddyshack), seeks revenge on the deserter.
The Proud Valley (1940)
Hoping to find work in Wales, David Goliath (Paul Robeson) hops a train and winds up in a small mining town. There, his powerful physique and magnificent singing voice get the attention of the choir director, and Goliath soon finds himself down in the pit, excavating coal. When a cave-in leads to disaster, the mine is closed and all the workers are left unemployed. Hoping to convince the owners to reopen the facility, Goliath helps a young man lead a group of activists in a walk to London. Along the way, they learn war has been declared, and hope to use the nation's needs to get the mine up and running again.
Native Land (1942)
In an intriguing documentary that wants to trace the notion of liberty and its application and abuse over the course of American history, actor/singer Paul Robeson lends his distinctive voice over narration. We see stories involving the murder of sharecroppers, the torture of men by the Ku Klux Klan, and the incredibly incendiary activities of an anti-union corporate spy. While all of these sequences are dramatic recreations, they are based on actual fact. Indeed, these incidents were reported to the Senate Civil Liberties Committee in 1938. Throughout it all, Robeson sings, and suggests ways to avoid this obvious "fascism" at home.
Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)
A 25-minute documentary on Robeson's life and times focuses almost exclusively on his career in front of the camera, on stage, and as a vocal critic of U.S. policies toward minorities.
It's all about the voice. Paul Robeson was not a great dramatic or comedic actor. He didn't have the obvious performance chops of latter-day masters like Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, or even contemporary figures like Denzel Washington. While he managed the material well and never let his obvious sense of dignity drop for a particular problematic part, Robeson is best described as a potent personality, not the African-American Olivier. No, where his impressive on-screen presence made its biggest impact was with that amazing bass voice of his. It resonates across the speakers, soaking up as much of the bottom-level frequencies as an old tinny mono recording can manage. If Nat King Cole was smooth, sophisticated urbane cool, Robeson was his rural, rustic blood brother. Within their combination of vocal genius lays the entire legacy of antebellum black music. Where other movie stars manipulated their image to continue their careers, all Robeson had to do was open his mouth and speak -- or better yet, sing. By doing so, he blotted out dozens of despicable stereotypes foisted upon the minority populace by a white race uneasy with the group's growing stature.
But there was more to Robeson than just strong personal pipes. There's an indefinable "it," a sort of incomprehensible charisma that carries across even the most melodramatic or ridiculous cinematic storyline. It may be nothing more than pure magnetism, a conceivable chemistry that hits anyone who comes in contact with it. The existence of this flummoxing facet to Robeson's persona is something easily experienced in the new Criterion Collection box set. By having an opportunity to watch the performer grow from silent-screen archetype to mid-'40s myth, we can view the creative constants that made the man an instant star and sense the fleeting auras that resulted in his confusing status as a cinematic afterthought. Some will say that his desire to promote Socialist views amid America's post-war worries about Communism created the cloud that hangs around his legacy today. Others will point to the 11 major motion pictures he made and state, with some certainty, that they are the reason behind his rejection as anything other than a significant social icon.
There is much more to Robeson than highly publicized political views, a profound singing voice, and a presence that argued against the scurrilous segregation practiced as part of the entertainment industry and the country at large. Indeed, he could be the kind of old-school actor who would experience a certified aesthetic resurgence should the right context come along. And this Criterion Collection offering may very well be that framework. When presented alongside his other well-known works (Show Boat and Mines, in particular), one can see the immense growth of the man as a performer and a pioneer. Robeson never once falls into the standard clichés of the early 20th Century. Certainly there are times when he is forced into the demeaning vernacular of the Caucasian concept of black speech, and no single human was capable of completely washing away the massive cultural stain created by decades donning mammy rags and referring to white folks as "massa." Still, unlike other minority actors of the era that have to be apologized for and retrofitted to avoid the tag of racist, Robeson never catered to the evils of eugenics. His was a voice for total equality, a powerful call that was both his import and his eventual downfall.
By looking at each film in this set individually, we can see Robeson grow as an artist. Of special significance are the films he made during a self-imposed exile to Britain in the late '20s and '30s. These movies make invaluable strides into showcasing the black man as an undeniably equal and worthy member of mankind. Considering the time frame in which this message was featured, to call these films controversial is an understatement. Even several decades later, they play as worthy wake-up calls to a generation unswerving in its "prejudice is passé" sentiments. Let's begin with the earliest effort offered here:
Body and Soul (1925) Score: 75
It's an incredibly odd cinematic experience -- a once lost film found and fashioned together the best way possible -- with the results being something both valuable and vile. Robeson, in a very unclear double role (we realize he is the character Sylvester, but he is not properly introduced into the storyline), gets to twist the Simon Legree-style villain on its moustache twirling head. He plays a potent black evildoer without the "animalistic" aura most motion pictures of the time placed on such a role. Indeed, the Reverend Jenkins is suave and sophisticated, selling his sermons and sentimental soft soap, all in the name of a completely criminal cause. Because we can't hear Robeson's sonorous voice in this film (it's a silent in every sense of the word, with very few title cards offered to explain what's going on), much of his impact has to come from body language and facial gestures, and Robeson offers amazing examples of these performance traits. As a matter of fact, one could argue that, the minute sound arrived, Robeson began relying on his amazing voice more than his other acting skills. As an example of Oscar Micheaux's directorial style (he is frequently noted as the first African-American to make a feature film with 1920's The Homesteader), there is not much here. We have a few sets, a decent evangelical set piece with Robeson hamming it up, and several old-fashioned dissolves. He may be the first black artist to capture the complexities of the black experience on film, but this is not a great example of his craft.
Borderline (1930) Score: 89
Talk about your lost treasures -- few if any of Robeson's fans have ever seen this extremely experimental film from one-off avant-garde cinematic deconstructionist Kenneth McPherson. With an obvious bow to Eisenstein and the use of the editorial process as a means of shaping mise-en-scene, McPherson tells a simple kitchen-sink drama of adultery and revenge in such a manner that it feels alien, even to the post-millennial viewer. Robeson is nothing more than a symbol here -- a black face hated by the local populace and loathed by the wife of an unfaithful man. When McPherson features him, the actor is statuesque and serious, demonstrating a demeanor that demands respect and worth. It's a brilliant contrast to the various Caucasian actors who mock the minorities mercilessly, their mouths agape, crooked teeth cracked in nasty, knowing smiles. Similarly, Robeson's wife in real life, Eslanda, is not portrayed as a natural beauty. Instead, she is seen as mysterious and enigmatic, masking her allure in ways that add intriguing layers to the already diverse storyline. This is a very fussy film, a great deal of it style over substance. But the filmmaking approach is so original, and the results so intriguing, that it is hard to really criticize the completed project. There is some amazing artistry on display here, both behind and in front of the camera.
The Emperor Jones (1933) Score: 81
To fully appreciate Robeson's stirring turn as the title character (a role he perfected on stage during a long run of this Eugene O'Neill hit), you're going to have to put on a larger, more open-minded, creative thinking cap. The N-word is tossed around here so freely and frequently you'll think you've stumbled upon an ancient precursor to the modern rap video. In addition, as a very white man, O'Neill is stretching his literary talents by trying to tell the story of a stoic black man incapable of conforming to a society set on keeping him down. Therefore many of the narrative turns, the use of uncomfortable jive jargon, and the eventual ease of the character's corruptibility will sadden many a post-modern heart. But if you simply accept Jones for who he is and Robeson for playing him that way, you get a much better perspective on this problematic film. While the original was more or less a monologue, the film version has backstory, songs, and plenty of moments where Robeson can soar above its sentiments to make his own personal points. As a result, we are entertained by the actor's antics, even if there is a slightly sour taste left in our motion-picture mouth afterward.
Sanders of the River (1935) Score: 80
Perhaps the second most unusual film in this collection comes at a time when Robeson was living in England, working within its film industry to change the perception of the black man in world media. That's why it's so strange to see him playing a throwback tribal chief -- albeit it a very well-spoken and Western-schooled one -- as part of a narrative which champions British colonialism and the power of white imperialists over native culture. Indeed, as Bosambo (now, there's an unfortunate name), Robeson must balance his obvious mental and personal superiority against the "bwana welcome" ways of the script. He comes across with his dignity intact, but the rest of the film really falters as anything other than an anti-sovereignty shill. This is made clear in moments when the tribes revert to anarchy -- indulging in guns and liquor -- the minute Sanders leaves his post. It's as if the movie argues "once a savage, always a savage." Like a smug super nanny, the "Veddy Briddish" bureaucrat must step in and set things right. Robeson is merely some weird window dressing here, given over to moments of jungle adventure rather than playing a part in the possible solutions for his people. He's fine. The film is a minor failure.
Jericho (1937) Score: 85
Considered by Robeson to be the personal favorite of all his films, Jericho also represents the production he had the most personal influence over. Apparently saddened by Sanders, he got the right to pick his next project, the people he'd make it with, and the ability to reject the final cut. As a result, the main character hear is as close to a Messianic Christ clone as you'll get from the actor. Indeed, Robeson was strongly inspired by Jesus's message of human equality, and used this story of a wrongly accused service man who finds sanctuary among the peoples of the Middle East as a firm statement in favor of one man's power to change the world. Thanks to the location work (much of the film was shot in Egypt) and the plot that champions Robeson's idealized, larger-than-life figure, we are caught up inside the occasionally manipulative storyline. In fact, were it not for a third-act salt caravan that monopolizes most of the narrative, this would be a relatively entertaining movie. Sure, Wallace Ford is being purposefully placed in the reverse minority role, given over to obvious buffoonery, and the ending is kind of a cop-out, but overall, this is indeed one of Robeson's finest films.
The Proud Valley (1940) Score: 82
Not so much a movie as a collection of short political points made all the more meaningful or meaningless by the onset of World War II, Valley was born from Robeson's staunch social activism. While living in Britain, he frequently read of the plight of poor miners, locked out of jobs by greedy, capitalist businessmen. Using this fiscal injustice as the basis for a broader look at human rights, we are immersed in the everyday life of small-town Wales as Robeson, a wandering sailor looking for work, stumbles upon a choral group in desperate need of his bass voice. There is a single significant scene -- a pair of miners resent Robeson's "black" character being a part of their clique -- and the lines delivered by the white choir director mark the movie's main social theme. It becomes all the more significant during a last-act tragedy that requires a massive sacrifice on someone's part. Along the way, Hitler is hammered and Nazism denounced, illustrating another issue that was close to Robeson's heart. While it turned the film's sense of self-surrender into more of a "God, King, and Country" dynamic, it did open up the notion of all men helping to put down a despot. With a wealth of musical numbers and the actor's undeniable charm, Valley manages to be engaging, if slightly overblown.
Native Land (1942) Score: 78
The final full-length film presented by Criterion is perhaps the box setÂ's most mediocre, but not because of the message it offers or Robeson's stirring voiceover work. No, the biggest problem with Native Land is its obvious propaganda slant. As well-meaning and intellectually intended as the differing dramatizations were to be, Native Land always feels like we're getting only one completely biased side of the story. Granted, there is no excuse for the random killing of innocent sharecroppers, the lynching of men solely for the color of their skin, or the violation of inherent civil rights for some ridiculous social agenda. But when you see an anti-Union spy metaphysically wringing his hands over the trouble he can cause for the high-minded worker, one starts waiting for images of the hammer and sickle to start showing up. Presented in a fair and balanced manner, no subject is beyond discussion. But when you've suffered through centuries of second-class citizenship, when the conservative majority has manhandled your liberalized approaches to subjects, it seems logical to drop all pretense of equilibrium and simply go for the throat. This is indeed what Native Land does -- both to its benefit and its obvious detriment.
As a matter of fact, if there is one main criticism that can be welded onto Robeson's strangely scattershot career, it's the belief that he, as one man, could change the cultural dynamic of Hollywood -- and by vicarious interaction, the world. His departure for Europe to pursue his goals is more than noble, but seems rather self-serving. This is not meant to be a criticism. Without a forum from which to function (and Tinseltown wasn't bowing to his needs), Robeson would be an ineffectual spokesman. But the films he made didn't have a fraction of the impact that his concerts and singing recitals did. When we do get a chance to see the man sing (either within a motion-picture storyline or as part of the bonus features offered here), it is clear that the stage was his best cultural catalyst. In and amongst the people, with the falsifying glare of the limelight off his formidable persona, Robeson was real and revelatory. In some ways, these films are merely visual representations of an otherwise unknowable human hero. It's the sum, not just the many movable parts, which stands out here. From churlish con man to man mountain against all forms of oppression seems like a mighty big leap, but you have to remember everything that Paul Robeson was -- including the actor who had to make these movies to solidify his stance.
From a purely historic standpoint, this Criterion Collection box set will seem like an important motion-picture monument. Individuals enamored with technical specifications, however, will probably complain about the lack of pristine prints and nominal added content. Indeed, most of these movies look less than stellar -- and the company admits as much. The 1.33:1 transfers provided are loaded with scratches, dirt, faded sequences, and mangled editing flaws. This does not render the movies unwatchable -- far from it. But for motion-picture purists who want their monochrome imagery to be an artistic celebration of black-and-white, the shades of gray presentation here will be rather underwhelming. Again, this is not a rationale reason for avoiding this collection, just a caveat. Similarly, the flat and tinny Dolby Digital Mono mixes will leave audiophiles cold. Thank God for Robeson's bravado bass. It gives many of these soundtracks a decided lift in aural atmosphere. If you listen closely, you will hear some occasional hiss and a fair share of age-influenced popping. But overall, these ancient cinematic artifacts sound and look just fine.
As for the added content, Criterion does the best it can with limited access to material on the actor (his estate does a wonderful job of maintaining Robeson's legacy). First up are a pair of commentaries, one for The Emperor Jones (by historian Jeffery C. Stewart), the other for Body and Soul (from scholar Pearl Bowser). The latter is really more of a love letter to Oscar Micheaux than a clear dissection of the film. Bowser does fill in narrative gaps and give Robeson his due, but her obvious attention to the directorial details may miff some who want a concise discussion of the actor and his influence. Stewart's take on Jones is far better, since it focuses on the play, Robeson's influences on it, and the eventual leap to the big screen. He does tend to go overboard with the well-meaning minutiae, but overall, the conversation is genial and very engaging. Not quite as successful are the new jazz scores -- offered in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo -- commissioned for Body and Soul and Borderline. Granted, an old-fashioned piano or organ soundtrack would appear wildly out of place. But only Courtney Pine understands the logistics of silent film. While Wycliffe Gordon's take on Body and Soul is somewhat discordant with what's happening on screen, Pine's pitch-perfect sonic supplement helps the feel of Borderline's bare-bones storytelling.
The first really significant contextual piece comes on the "Pioneer" disc (containing Sanders and Jericho). There you will find the mini-documentary on Robeson's time in Britain, and it's fascinating stuff. Because of its colonialist past, the United Kingdom had a much more complex handling of race relations than the United States, and the scholars who discuss the actor's time in their country all give the man his unquestioned due. They also have some very insightful things to say about the two films featured and their comments help us to place these otherwise odd efforts into perspective. In addition, on the Icon DVD (where The Emperor Jones is located), a 30-minute documentary called Paul Robeson: Portrait of an Artist is featured. With Sidney Poitier giving the voiceover narration, we are walked through Robeson's acting and singing career. His past as an athlete, intellectual, and lawyer are glanced over in favor of the story surrounding the artist's problems with the U.S. Government. Denied a passport when his pro-Socialist stance rubbed a McCarthy-era country the wrong way, Robeson used his legal background to fight. The juxtaposition of this battle and the many different lyrical changes he made to "Ol' Man River" are the highlights of this otherwise incomplete overview. There is also a brief discussion with Robeson's son, Paul Jr., and a conversation with Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, and William Greaves. Both featurettes give us great anecdotal evidence of Robeson's influence and, along with the accompanying 76-page booklet (with an essay from the man himself), they help provide a modern link to Robeson's lengthy heritage.
So why is it that a collection of films, none of which earn anything higher than an above-average rating, can suddenly become a must-own DVD set. The answer lies in who is being celebrated here, not necessarily the movies that contribute to his myth. Just one look at Paul Robeson on the silver screen and you instantly understand the appeal -- the imposing power, the genial glint in the corners of his wise and watchful eyes, the voice that soared like a rocket right up to Heaven, and the conviction that won him as many critics as curtain calls. To put it another way, Robeson the man transcended Robeson the star or Robeson the struggling minority actor to become Robeson the emblem. Had it been any old actor playing the part of Jericho Johnson, David Goliath, Brutus Jones, or the Reverend Jenkins, we probably wouldn't be discussing these films. They would merely be rare exceptions to prejudice both in America and elsewhere. But because Paul Robeson the star, because he imbued every one of these performances with his own personal sort of spectacle, we watch and wonder -- wonder what he could have accomplished in a more enlightened time; wonder why he had to fight so hard to gain so very little; wonder how an entire populace could pride themselves on calling individuals like Robeson all manner of mindblowing epithets. He may not have been a superstar, but that didn't matter. Paul Robeson was a man, an African-American man at that, and, at least in his eyes, that was far more important.
Not guilty. Though the films included are inconsistent in their artistic status, the overall box set from Criterion offers an important cinematic service. It preserves the memory of a man who deserved better than he received. Case closed.
Review content copyright © 2007 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Silent)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 516 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Full-length Audio Commentary on Body and Soul by Pearl Bowser
* Full-length Audio Commentary on The Emperor Jones by Jeffery C. Stewart
* 'Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist' Documentary
* New Jazz Score for Body and Soul by Wycliffe Gordon
* New Jazz Score for Borderline by Courtney Pine
* Pacifica Radio Interview with Paul Robeson
* 'True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson' Featurette
* 'The Story of Native Land' Featurette
* 'Our Paul Remembered' Featurette
* 'Robeson on Robeson' Featurette
* 76-page Booklet, featuring article and essay on Robeson and his career.
* IMDb: Body and Soul
* IMDb: Borderline
* IMDb: The Emperor Jones
* IMDb: Sanders of the River
* IMDb: Jericho
* IMDb: The Proud Valley
* IMDb: Native Land
* IMDb: Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist