This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Paul Robeson, one of the most important African-American figures of the first half of this century; these three rare films (along with Body And Soul, Robeson's Oscar Micheaux-directed debut) are receiving their video premiere to commemorate the occasion. Born into adverse circumstances, Robeson went on to become a first-rate scholar (valedictorian at Rutgers), a football hero, and a graduate of Columbia Law School before rising to fame as an actor and singer in two plays by Eugene O'Neill and early performances of Showboat. A restless intellect and activist, Robeson also traveled abroad in the '30s, to England, Africa, the Soviet Union and elsewhere, where he mingled with many of the day's preeminent thinkers and—in what would ultimately lead to his de facto expulsion from the U.S. during the Red Scare '50s—became convinced that socialism might not be a bad solution to the problem of racism in America. Even before that time, however, Robeson realized he would have to go elsewhere to receive the artistic freedom to play non-stereotypical roles, and it's from one such period in the mid-1930s that these three British-produced films, for which Robeson had final cut, are drawn. In 1936's Song Of Freedom, Robeson plays a London dock worker whose booming voice brings him fame and the opportunity to return to the small West African island of his ancestors; the problem is that it is dominated by witch doctors straight out of a Tarzan movie. In many ways a strange film, Song Of Freedom is worth watching primarily for Robeson's magnetic presence. Though progressive for its era, it has a curiously outdated attitude toward Africa and colonialism: Robeson, whose character is descended from the island's royalty, must return to restore order to a land where, as one character says without a trace of irony, "The people, still dominated by these witch doctors, will never allow the white man to come near them. And so, they are still backward, uncivilized, impoverished." It's fascinating to watch the depiction of warm friendships between working-joe Robeson and his white co-workers, something that would be difficult to find in many American studio films of the same era. This is even more explicit in Big Fella, which finds Robeson and friends caring for an unhappy, upper-class, runaway kid. It's slight but pleasant, and, like each film, it's carefully structured to give its star a chance to sing a handful of songs. Jericho, also from 1937, may be the most intriguing of the bunch, if only because of its prescience. Robeson plays an American soldier who, unjustly convicted of a crime, must flee to another country: In this case, an unnamed area of Africa in which Robeson advances to leadership takes the place of Russia. Possibly Robeson's most dignified role, Jericho never questions the ability of a black man to lead—and in this case. Robeson is leading a small nation of people from all over the world—only the injustice of the country from which he has fled. Even so, as a drama, it's clunky, and the main attraction is once again Robeson. All three films fail to live up to the potential of their star—this is the man whose reinvention of Othello was legendary—but they're still entertaining, invaluable snapshots of one of the most controversial, fascinating American figures of the century.
More from The A.V. Club
Selena takes a bow, James Marsden takes The Stand, and Shonda Rhimes comes to Netflix this December on TV