As I said below in the article about his film “Sanders of the River” 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 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 film “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”, of 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) director Pen Tennyson, for which “Valley” was his 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 rightly argue that Robeson plays what could be considered one of the first examples of the “Magical Negro” in the film; as in the black man who gives/uses his own life, if necessary, to improve and better the lives of the white people in the film 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 give a wonderful, almost charming performance in the film. 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, the film has now been remastered in a new 2K restoration, and will be screened in theaters as part of the British Film Institute’s “Black Star” season of screenings and events.
And on January 30th, the film will be released on blu-ray for the first time by StudioCanal. Unfortunately, it will be a UK release only; at least initially. Certainly the disc will also be released in the US as well eventually, most likely from Criterion which, 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: