On this day in history, April 9, 1898, Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, NJ. He would’ve been 118 years old this year were he still alive (he died in 1976). Sidney Poitier gets much of the ink, so to speak, and rightfully so, but Robeson laid the groundwork, coming more than 2 decades before Poitier starred in his first feature film ("No Way Out" in 1950). Robeson made his big screen debut appearance in a film directed by another of cinema’s historical treasures, Oscar Micheaux’s "Body and Soul" in 1925. In fact, Robeson’s film acting career pretty much ended in the late 1940s (the fact that he was blacklisted and isolate politically by the House Un-American Activities Committee certainly didn’t help) before Poitier ever stepped in front of a film camera, with around 12 credits on his resume – his performance in "The Emperor Jones" in 1933 likely his crowning achievement; on film anyway.
One key opportunity (among many) that was missed which may not be widely-known (and given some of our recent conversations on this blog about films on anti-slavery and anti-colonial insurrection) is that Robeson was reportedly to star in a film on Toussaint-Louverture, which was to be made in the 1930s, with Soviet-era directing legend Sergei Eisenstein attached to helm. It obviously never happened.
But Robeson wasn’t just a film actor. He also had a successful stage career, was a singer and activist. But those are a mere words that simply can’t fully capture the dynamic human being and incredible presence that he was.
And with all the apparent interest in biopics on black public figures (see my most recent list here), I’d say that a Paul Robeson biopic is long overdue, given the man and his accomplishments – frankly, far more-so than many of the biopics we’ve seen in recent years.
As of this posting, we are aware of 3 previously announced films on the life of Robeson, although it’s not clear where each one stands today – whether they’re still alive and in development, shelved for good, or in Limbo.
The first: Announced in 2012, Michael Jai White said during an interview while doing press for a documentary ("Generation Iron") he was involved in, that he intended to bring the life story of Robeson to the big screen, playing Robeson himself. He lamented the fact that Robeson’s legacy seemed to have been forgotten, and argued that he hasn’t been given the proper recognition he deserves, given what he accomplished, calling him a personal as well as a national hero. White insisted that he is/was the person to play Robeson, adding that it was a part that he could definitely do justice to. He went on to say that the project was in the works, and that it was a personal quest for him to see that it got made. That was almost 4 years ago; no word on whether it’s still a passion project for him at this point.
The second: Announced in 2013, British actor David Harewood was attached to play Robeson in what was said to be more of an indie production, with Sydney Tamiia Poitier (daughter of Sidney Poitier) as Paul Robeson’s wife, Eslanda ("Essie") Goode Robeson. South African director Darrell Roodt ("Winnie") was initially attached to helm. Months later, Vondie Curtis-Hall reportedly took over, replacing Roodt in the director’s chair. The project hailed from Four Stars International, and was to be produced by Greg Carter, and executive produced by Richard Akel, with a script penned by Akel and Terry Bisson, with promises of a film that’s worthy of its subject. Also of note, Louis Gossett Jr. was to portray W.E.B. Du Bois in the film which was expected to be a traditional biopic, showing Robeson’s rise (along with his wife, who was also his business manager) into his 60s. The goal was to shoot the film in August of 2013, in Toronto and Montreal; but it doesn’t appear that photography actually happened, or if the project is even still in the works. It’s not listed on any of the above names’ IMDB pages.
And the third: Announced in 2014, Steve McQueen revealed, via the Guardian (UK), that he was planning to direct a feature film based on the life of Robeson, saying that it would indeed be his next feature directorial effort after "12 Years a Slave." It wasn’t clear to me whether McQueen’s project was something entirely new, or if he was in fact taking over the existing project that his fellow Brit, David Harewood, was already attached to star in. According to the Guardian piece, directing a film on Robeson was McQueen’s dream project: "His life and legacy was the film I wanted to make the second after Hunger […] But I didn’t have the power, I didn’t have the juice," McQueen said. With an Oscar-winning film on his resume, and the attention of the film world, he certainly had "the juice" after "12 Years." But 2 years later, it’s not clear whether it’s still a dream project for him. Harry Belafonte is involved in the project, although we don’t yet know in what capacity exactly. I’d guess as a producer/consultant, given that Belafonte and Robeson were pals. McQueen added: "We’re very fortunate that we’re on a roll together to make this dream a reality. Miracles do happen. With Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte, things have come full circle." He didn’t share what actors he may have been eyeing for the part. But assuming it’s still a project in the works, but is just taking some time to come together (as is often the case in the business of movie-making), depending on when the film is released, and given that it would very likely be high-profile enough, it could very well be another Steve McQueen film that will find itself in Awards season conversations, for whatever year that is.
Given the long life that he lived, the events he lived through, the other historically-significant public figures he knew, interacted and worked with (like Oscar Micheaux), his on-screen and off-screen accomplishments, his activism that would lead to his black-listing, and so much more, there’s a lot of great history here in this one, single life. And a big screen account of that life is one that’s definitely warranted. Or maybe a miniseries, his story unfolding over several episodes, that one of the premium cable TV networks picks up, so that we get a more comprehensive portrait of the man and his life, instead of squeezing it all into a 2-hour feature film.
Which project will get to the finish line first is anyone’s guess. I imagine that there’s a matter of life rights to be considered here, with the Robeson Estate controlling them. So there could be some behind-the-scenes conflicts that may not have been made public yet. We’ll certainly find out soon enough.
But no matter; I’m just encouraged that there’s actual new interest in bringing Robeson’s life to the screen.
In the meantime, one of my favorite clips of the renaissance man; dateline 1959, talking Shakespeare (he portrayed Othello early in his career – 1943). It’s a rare treat to find footage of Paul Robeson as Paul Robeson. Watch: