The BFI is celebrating the work of Paul Robeson as part of its BLACK STAR season and new Black Britain on Film collection, aiming to bring his work and legacy to a new generation of fans. The American-born actor, singer, athlete, lawyer and political activist was a true transatlantic trailblazer with a central role in the American Civil Rights Movement, who found fame in the UK and went on to make a significant impact in British film and theatre.
Paul Robeson traveled to the UK in the late 1920s, searching for opportunities that were not available for black actors in America at the time. In the UK, he took to both stage and screen, becoming the first black actor to play Othello (1930) in over a century and originating the iconic role of ‘Joe’ in the West End theatre production of “Show Boat” and later in the film adaptation, which went on to become a box office hit.
Determined to break through the stereotypes associated with black actors, Paul Robeson was insistent on playing challenging and insightful roles and this can be seen through his work, particularly in “The Proud Valley” and “Song of Freedom,” the two films he cites as his most significant.
The BFI’s Paul Robeson retrospective will include screenings at BFI Southbank in London of 1940’s classic, “The Proud Valley” (dir. Pen Tennyson), a gritty and heartfelt social drama, in which Robeson plays an American stoker who finds work in a Welsh mining community; “Song of Freedom” (dir. J. Elder Wills, 1936), about a London dock-worker who finds fame and fortune as an opera singer and then uses his wealth to seek out his African heritage; “Body and Soul” (dir. Oscar Micheaux, 1925), Robeson’s feature film debut, where he stars as an escaped convict trying to pass as a local preacher in the Deep South; “Jericho” (dir. Thornton Freeland, 1937), which follows an American WWII soldier who flees to Africa after being unjustly sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit and becomes the powerful leader of an Arab tribe; “Borderline” (dir. Kenneth Macpherson, 1930), the ground-breaking psychological thriller about an interracial love triangle; “Show Boat” (dir. James Whale), the musical in which Robeson originated the iconic role of Joe in both the West End theatre production in 1928 and the film adaptation in 1936, introducing audiences to his unforgettable rendition of the classic song, ‘Ol Man River; and “Sanders of the River” (dir. Zoltan Korda, 1935) in which Robeson plays a loyal West African chief who helps a British Commissioner regain control of the colonized West African kingdom he rules over, after it falls into disarray.
“Sanders of the River” was a breakout film for Robeson in many ways, though it clearly was not one that turned out the way he wanted, or even remotely liked. And despite his many legendary accomplishments in sports while in college, on the stage, in music and in political activism, it’s fair to say that Robeson’s film career was not the greatest. And that’s not just my own opinion. Robeson himself said on several occasions that his film career was more disappointing than he would have liked.
Of the 13 films he made from 1925, to his last film in 1942, before giving up on films altogether, he went into most of them with the best of intentions. But they always fell into the usual trap of stereotypical portrayals and clichés.
But of all his films, “Sanders of the River” stands out the most.
Produced and directed by the Alexander Korda and his brother Zoltan, who were the most important British filmmakers during the 1930’s and 40’s, Robeson agreed to make the film because, as he was was quoted, “of a passionate concern with African culture.”
The film centers on a benevolent white British colonial officer named Sanders (played by Leslie Banks) in an unnamed African country, and his troubles in trying to keep the peace among the various local tribes he’s been assigned to contain and control, along with his right-hand-man Bosambo, played by Robeson.
The film was radically changed during post-production, with re-shoots and new scenes added that were not in the original script, to make the film more of a stirring, jingoistic tribute to British colonialism in Africa, making Robeson’s tribal chief leader more subservient to the white Sanders character.
The film’s tone is set immediately just after the opening credits, with the title card: “AFRICA – Tens of millions of natives under British rule, each tribe with its own chieftain governed and protected by a handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency.”
And with that intro, it’s pretty clear where the film is heading.
There are other troublesome things in the film, like Africans being called Sanders’ “black children;” there’s also the film’s rather blatantly patronizing attitude; as well as the usual stereotypes of Africans that would have comfortably fit right in a Tarzan movie.
In fact, Robeson reportedly walked out on the film at its London premiere, and later tried to buy all existing prints of the film to prevent it from being shown, but failed. Though he later said about “Sanders,” that “the imperialist plot had been inserted during the last five days of shooting… I was roped into the picture because I wanted to portray the culture of the African people and I committed a faux pas which convinced me that I had failed to weigh the problems of 150,000,000 native Africans… I hate the picture.”
But how much of Robeson claiming that he had been duped, is true? Throughout the film, he constantly calls Sanders “Lord Sandy” and twice sings a song in his honor, heralding him practically as lord and master over all of Africa: “Sandy the Strong/Sandy the Wise/Righter of wrongs/Hater of lies…” as his character sings.
In addition, there are some really groan-worthy lines that Robeson says in the film, like: “Every time I have seen the beautiful face of your great King, my heart is filled with joy.”
So while it is true that the film was changed during post-production, the fact of the matter is that Robeson is in several of the most embarrassing and offensive scenes in it, so he can’t exactly claim ignorance.
However, one can argue, as some have, that Robeson’s performance as Bosambo is actually more subversive in tone; That with a slight wink in his eye and a sly underhanded smile, his character is actually “playing” with Sanders, manipulating him. Seemingly acting subservient and dutiful, he is actually, in a sort of Machiavellian way, using Sanders to gain his own power over all the various tribes, which he does get at the end. Looking at it that way does indeed make the film look a lot more interesting.
And there’s the curious addition of Nina Mae McKinney (the star of director King Vidor’s 1929 all black musical drama “Hallelujah,” who was the first real black female Hollywood star), playing Bosambo’s at first love interest, and then wife. The actress would quickly find out that there were no roles for her, and her appearance in “Sanders” did not result in the kind of breakthrough in her career that she hoped it would be. Although their first scene together, when Bosambo meets her, is terrific (pictured above), with some funny and even still current dialogue:
— Robeson (with a lustful look in his eyes): “Hey girl, what’s your name? Where do you come from?”
— McKinney: “You wouldn’t know the place. I’m from the coast.”
— Robeson: “I know all about the coast” (with a wicked grin on his face) “We can talk all about that later.”
Still, despite all its problems, it is Robeson who commands the film, from his very first entrance, literally towering over everyone. One cannot deny his sheer charisma and overpowering physical presence. When Robeson was on the screen, Robeson was on the screen, if you understand what I mean.
And of course, there’s that voice – that magnificent, resonant, emotionally powerful voice. One of the greatest singers ever; and Robeson does sing a few songs in the film.
Despite the objections of Zoltan, who had wanted a more sensitive study of African culture and society, Sanders is an unwavering celebration of British colonial rule. As a result, “Sanders of the River” uncritically retains the patronizing racism of the Edgar Wallace novel it was based on. Although Robeson subsequently disowned the film and vowed never to work with Korda again, his dignified performance and powerful bass voice contributed much to the film, and gave it what would become a popular hit song, “The Canoe Song.”
“Sanders of the River” is presented as part of the BFI’s ongoing celebration of Paul Robeson, as an interesting turning point in his film career when he became insistent on playing roles that broke away from racial stereotypes.
Below, watch the sequence in the film when Robeson’s character singes “The Canoe Song.”