Paul Robeson was a truly remarkable man. A true renascence man. The Columbia Law School graduate was a civil rights activist, a Pan-Africanist, a political activist, an athlete, an acclaimed actor (His performances of Othello in London and Broadway are still the stuff of legend), and of course a singer, with one of greatest and most powerful voices ever heard. He was simply an extraordinary person.
However, if there is one thing Robeson didn’t conquer it was the movies. He made some 13 films (and narrated three others), from his first film, Oscar Micheaux’s 1924 silent “Body and Soul”, until his last film for Fox in 1942, the woeful “Tales from Manhattan”, in what was an extended cameo role. But most of them, with the exception of the Micheaux film and one or two others, were bitter disappointments.
He made each film with the best of intentions, but they seemed to often go astray, reveling in backward stereotypes and negative imagery. However, the one exception for Robeson turned out to be his 1940 British film “Proud Valley”, which Robeson always felt was his best film, and which reflected his progressive pro-labor political beliefs of always working for and supporting as much as he could, the working class man against greedy corporate interests.
In fact, nine years after “Proud Valley”, Robeson went to Scotland to show his support for striking Scottish coal miners, where he gave a special concert for them in Royal Albert hall in London (You can watch a clip below of it below, which includes a few scenes from “Valley”).
The film was directed by the very young (28-year-old) Pen Tennyson, for which “Valley” was the last of only three films he directed. The very next year, in 1941, he was tragically killed in a plane crash while shooting training films for the Royal Navy during World War II.
In “Valley, Robeson plays a wandering vagabond who ends up in Wales. Of course, once the miners – who have a choir – hear that magnificent voice of his, they immediately want Robeson to join them. He later becomes a hero in the town when he saves the lives of some miners during a cave in. No doubt the emotional highlight of the film is a sequence during a memorial service where Robeson sings a powerful and moving rendition of “Deep River”, which later became one of his trademark songs.
I don’t want to give away what happens afterwards, but it’s safe to say that it’s predictable, and being the only black person in the film you can probably guess what happens at the end. And yes, you can rightfully argue that Robeson plays what could be considered one of the first examples of the “Magical Negro”; as in the black man who gives/uses his own life, if necessary, to help better the lives of the film’s white leads without any consideration for his own.
But Robeson had a screen presence like no other. He dominates the film and everyone else around him, and he gives a wonderful, almost charming performance in “Proud Valley.” And watching it, one can see why he was so drawn to the project. It represents everything that he believed in, the goodness of humanity, the progressive politics of the working class and oppressed people, struggling against the tide of greed and exploitation to make better and fairer lives for themselves.
For years, the film was wildly available and shown on local TV stations even here in the U.S., but in the last decade it’s been unavailable and impossible to see. However, “Proud Valley” has now been remastered in a new 2K restoration which was screened in theaters in Britain as part of the British Film Institute’s “Black Star” season of screenings and events last fall.
This brand new restoration of the Ealing Studios classic was funded by StudioCanal in collaboration with the BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage program (awarding funds from the National Lottery).
And this 2K restoration of the film is now more widely available, released on blu-ray for the first time ever by StudioCanal. Unfortunately, it’s a UK only release; at least for now. Although if you have one of those region-free blu-ray players that allows you to play discs from any country, you can purchase it right now before it’s officially released in the USA, which should happen this year, and most likely from Criterion who, several years ago, released a now out-of-print set of some of Robeson’s films on standard DVD.
Here’s s brief clip from “Proud Valley” when the miners first meet Robeson’s character:
And here’s a newsreel of Robeson performing for those Scottish miners: