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Paul Robeson: An Overlooked, Influential Figure in British Film

After visiting the Reuben Library, I came across an intriguing, influential figure who contributed to British film. This individual not only contributed to the evolution of British film but to social activism. During a time of social injustice and racism, this person sought out to provide a positive outlook for black people. In addition, he used a variety of talents to showcase his capabilities and gain positive, lead roles representing the black race. This man was none other than Paul Robeson. Writer Stephen Bourne stated, “When Robeson became a major star in British films in the mid-1930s, he negotiated for roles that projected a positive image of a black man, roles that broke away from one-dimensional and offensive racial stereotypes.” This was a major turning point for British film because it began to break barriers for those of color who aspired to be more than what the stereotyped allowed blacks at the time.

Furthermore, the reason why I find it imperative to highlight Paul Robeson is because his journey from beginning to end encouraged me to view the world of film in a different light. British film has addressed many important issues whether social or political giving me perspective on the inspirations for the kinds of films created in Britain. From 12 Years a Slave, to Fish Tank, to even the Four Lions I have gained an understanding of the pattern of topics British films tend to address. In saying that, Paul Robeson is one of the many figures that spearheaded the way for diversity in British film.

He was a black man that rose to greatness in a time when segregation was legal in the United States, and black people were being lynched by racist mobs, especially in the South. In saying that, he transferred that negative energy as motivation to become a famous African-American athlete, singer, actor, and advocate for the civil rights of people around the world. In the late 1920’s, Robeson and his family relocated to Europe, where they lived for more than a decade. Writer Laura Grimm stated, “He established both a singing and film career, and his next big-screen feature was 1930's Borderline. He was also featured in six British films over the next few years, including the desert drama Jericho and musical Big Fella, both released in 1937. During this period, Robeson also starred in the second big-screen adaptation of Show Boat (1936).” Though his influence went beyond London, his success in theatre and film can be accredited to Britain. He flourished in British film as one of the few successful individuals of color during that time. The University of Chicago’s official website explained, “In London, Robeson earned international acclaim for his lead role in Othello, for which he won the Donaldson Award for Best Acting Performance (1944), and performed in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones and All God's Chillun Got Wings.” Moreover, Robeson's travels taught him that racism was not as virulent in Europe as in the U.S.

What’s even more interesting was Robeson’s method in regard to performing. Instead of deterring away from his culture to appeal to his mainstream audience, he embraced his culture and showcased it through his voice. The University of Chicago’s official website explained, “He used his deep baritone voice to promote Black spirituals, to share the cultures of other countries, and to benefit the labor and social movements of his time. He sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout the U.S., Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa. Robeson became known as a citizen of the world, equally comfortable with the people of Moscow, Nairobi, and Harlem.” Robeson recognized the importance of incorporating themes from various cultures to enhance unity amongst races, countries and the world.  

He integrated his culture into his profession to show whites along with blacks that the black culture is nothing to be ashamed of. Robeson brilliantly explained, “We are a great race, greater in tradition and culture than the American race. Why should we copy something that’s inferior? I am going to produce plays, make films, sing chants and prayers, all with the view in mind to show my poor people that their culture traces back to the great civilizations of Persia, China and the Jews.” He truly embraced the beauty of his culture and did everything in his power to provide uplift to the black community. Activist Harry Belafonte stated, “What Paul did very consciously was to go into that world of black life; black art. Extract from it those songs that he felt most comfortable with and he felt were the ones that most demonstrated our history, our struggle and our dignity as a people.” Moreover, Robeson has gained my upmost respect in his efforts towards not only providing black uplift but unifying all races.

Furthermore, it was interesting to discover that in the earlier years of his career Robeson received negative feedback from the black community and black writers because the roles he played portrayed blacks in a stereotypical, ignorant way. After the ridicule, Robeson began expressing to the press how he desired to play positive black roles. The persistence paid off because he was opportune to star in roles that were more dignified. And if he was in the position of playing a role of a black character that demeaned black people he would transform the role to bring out most positive outlook possible. Bourne expressed, “For the ambitious Robeson there were hardly any opportunities to play challenging roles. Even so, in all of his films, whatever their merits, he succeeded in bringing intelligence, strength and compassion to his characters. This is particularly evident in three of his British films: Song of Freedom (d. J Elder Wills, 1936), Jericho (d. Thornton Freeland, 1937) and The Proud Valley (d. Penrose Tennyson, 1940).” Robeson truly incorporated black uplift into his career of film. As a social activist he could not allow his goals in film to deter him from his goals in the world, therefore, he used film as a gateway to send positive messages of blacks throughout the world.

Nonetheless, here lies the main problem. Though racism exists throughout the world it is more prevalent in America compared to Europe. I do not believe that a man as spectacular as Robeson should have gone this long without recognition. Moreover, nineteen years after his death, Paul Robeson was finally inducted into the Rutgers College Football Hall of Fame. Robeson’s story shows us that with hard work and determination one can excel in life, though that does not mean that he or she will not encounter struggles and hardships.

What’s even more shocking is that the new generation is unfamiliar with the name Paul Robeson. His name should be as recognizable as Angela Davis, Rosa Parks and Langston Hughes but it isn’t. It’s not the history that is lost but the drive to learn our past. During the past week, I spoke to numerous people, primarily from my generation, about Paul Robeson and every single person was amazed by his story, though they had yet to hear of him beforehand. If it wasn’t for my visit to the Reuben Library, even I wouldn’t have known how influential this man has been in social activism and British film. After learning about him in depth, I cannot only can better understand his influence in British film but also his influence in the world. From his travels, to songs, to acting, Paul Robeson has made a mark in British film, which should be highlighted and never forgotten.

Bourne, C. (1999, February 24). Paul robeson here i stand documentary [Audio      file]. Retrieved from

Bourne, S. (n.d.). Robeson, paul (1898-1976). Retrieved April 18, 2015, from

Chicago, U. O. (n.d.). Paul robeson a brief biography. Retrieved April 18, 2015,      from

Paul Robeson. (2015). The website. Retrieved 03:09, Apr 20, 2015, from

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