Steve McQueen's Upcoming Film on Paul Robeson

April 21, 2015

Looking now into the present, British Filmmaker Steve McQueen is aiming to make a movie on the story of Paul Robeson. Without surprise, McQueen has been greeted with praise and excitement. Writer Jessica Duchen explained, “McQueen, whose film 12 Years a Slave was showered with awards, has apparently wished to tackle the topic for many years, but has said that only now has he the necessary ‘juice’. Sure enough, Robeson’s life, both public and personal, cries out for an adaptation. And even 38 years after his death, he still awaits true recognition as the cultural giant and social idealist that he really was.” McQueen has remarked that a newspaper article he was shown at age 14 sparked his idea. McQueen explained, “It was about this black guy who was in Wales and was singing with these miners. I was about 14 years old, and not knowing who Paul Robeson was, this black American in Wales, it seemed strange. So then, of course, I just found out that this man was an incredible human being.”  Further detail revealed that the article described Robeson in Wales, campaigning for better pay and conditions for the miners. 

  

There was a sound bond between a black American activist and Welsh coal pit workers. Duchen conveyed how Robeson first understood the struggles of whites and blacks together when he went down into the coal mine in the Rhondda Valley and lived amongst the workers. Moreover, he joined their hunger marches in 1927 and 1928 and starred in a 1940 film, Proud Valley, about a black miner moving to the region. Another example of how race, culture and life experiences influenced Robeson’s career in film. 

  

Looking back to 12 Years a Slave, I have great confidence in McQueen’s ability to develop an exceptional film. Taking a closer look into how he directed 12 Years a Slave with captivating shots, such as, the scene where Patsy is whipped and when Solomon silently stares at the camera in a close-up revealing all of the emotion and thoughts that are running through his head, it becomes evident that the world is in for a treat. Based on work in which slavery is well portrayed and the audience feels every moment with the main characters, I am pleased that McQueen is taking on the Paul Robeson project. 

  

Furthermore, McQueen still has not revealed when the film will come out, but he did express that Harry Belafonte, who awarded the 12 Years a Slave director with the Andrew Goodman Foundation's Media Hero award, will star in the film. What’s fascinating is that Belafonte was a friend and contemporary of Robeson. During McQueen’s collaboration with Belafonte on the Robeson film, McQueen explained, "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." It’s great to see a talented director bring history alive; from the past to the present. A man who’s played such a large role in many areas should have a film created about him, so that the world may be reminded of his contributions. 

  

Though Robeson contributed many things to mankind through his talents in theatre and film, his own country victimized him for his socialist leanings. Even now, one can’t help noting that it has taken a British filmmaker, not an American, to plan his screen biography. In addition, black characters in American cinema of Robeson’s period rarely moved beyond Al Jolson in Blackface, or the idiotic buffoons played by comedy actors like Stepin Fetchit. Though ethnic groups, in today’s time, have achieved more success in the U.S. a dilemma still exists of being recognized and receiving stellar awards. Furthermore, if Steve McQueen can bring Robeson’s legacy to a new generation, he can also bring the inspiration that such a figure can carry. And equally valuable, he can make us question those forces that set out to devalue and destroy him along with those that have come after him. 

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