• Thu. May 30th, 2024

Paul Robeson: the Activist Actor

ByIsabella Santini

Feb 11, 2023
An image of Paul Robseon singing into a microphone

Now mostly remembered for his iconic and stirring rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’ from the 1936 movie-musical Show Boat, Paul Robeson was not only one of early cinema’s greatest actors, but also one of its most radical. He began his film career in 1925, when he starred as a corrupt preacher in Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul, an all-Black film which illustrated the dangers of blind faith as well as the sexual violence often present in religious communities. A committed civil rights activist, he became determined to take only roles that allowed him to tell “human stories.” This led Robeson to work mostly outside of Hollywood, which he felt refused to portray Black people non-stereotypically. 

His fame put him in a position to challenge the injustices he and other Black people faced. On the set of Emperor Jones in 1933 he refused to be treated as a second-class citizen, and when the Beverly Wiltshire Hotel in LA tried to hide the fact that a Black man was staying there, he spent two hours in the lobby every day, eventually forcing the hotel to drop its restrictions on Black guests. Even after Robeson eventually quit acting in 1942 due to the demeaning roles on offer, he continued to use his celebrity to fight racism, and in 1946 he founded the American Crusade Against Lynching.

Throughout his career, Robeson became increasingly interested in the labour movement and antifascism, seeing these and the fight for civil rights as inextricably connected. He felt a particular kinship with Welsh miners after witnessing a protest in 1929, in which miners from the Rhondda valleys walked all the way to London after having been blacklisted by their employers. Seeing this outside his window, he was compelled to join their protest, and thereafter became a lifelong supporter of their cause. He frequently visited Welsh mining towns, lending support to labour struggles and hosting concerts. Following the Gresford Disaster, he donated the money from his concert in Caernarfon to help establish an orphanage for the children of the victims. These experiences ultimately led him to work on The Proud Valley, a 1940 film about a Black man who finds community among Welsh miners. The film focuses on the shared nature of their struggle and the power of solidarity.

Robeson’s labour activism was not limited to Wales. It also brought him here to Edinburgh in 1949 to sing for local miners, and it took him further afield to the Soviet Union after an invitation from the famous director, Sergei Eisenstein. He was so impressed with his experience there that he said of being in the USSR that “it was the first time I felt like a human being” and “did not feel the pressure of colour.” It was this comment (as well as his continued criticism of racism in America) that got him into trouble with Senator McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1956, he was brought before the committee after refusing to confirm that he was not a Communist. As a result of his hearing, he was blacklisted and had his passport revoked; his films were no longer distributed nor were his songs played on the radio. He was finally granted a passport again in 1958 after its refusal was declared illegal, but his declining health throughout the 1960s prevented him from being active in both showbusiness and politics until his death in 1976.

Though a controversial and well-known figure during his lifetime, Paul Robeson is now often overlooked. He is not solely the singer of ‘Ol’ Man River’; he was also a football player, a lawyer, and, in my opinion, one of the most talented actors of early cinema. He was also one of the most ground-breaking, consistently demanding better treatment for Black actors both in terms of working conditions and the roles available to them. His commitment to freedom and equality is inspiring, but he was not alone in this; dozens of talented and passionate voices were silenced during the McCarthy era, many of which are still waiting to be rediscovered.

“The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” – Paul Robeson, 1937

Paul Robeson Sings Out Against Lynching: 1946” by Washington Area Spark is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.