Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was one of the towering figures of African-American art, culture, and politics in the 20th century. An All-American collegiate athlete and attorney, he became a star of the dramatic and musical stage, an international concert luminary, recording artist, and the first black leading man on film. But his outspoken opposition to segregation and his support of Russia’s Communist regime made him a pariah during the Cold War ‘50s; the U.S. State Department lifted his passport for nearly a decade, until the Supreme Court overturned its action in 1958. Only near the end of his life did his singular achievements begin to be recognized without the taint of racial or political prejudice.
Robeson’s 1924 appearance in the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones launched him to stardom. He portrayed Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter turned murderer who becomes the despotic ruler of a Caribbean island. The expressionistic 1933 film production recreated that heralded performance, and was expanded to include several musical numbers featuring Robeson’s peerless, profound bass voice. The last 15 minutes of the film is essentially a soliloquy by Jones, who, hunted by rebellious natives, is terrorized by “haints” from his past; it’s an acting tour de force.
Today, The Emperor Jones looks antique, and its liberal use of the n-word and broad racial stereotyping will make contemporary viewers cringe. But there is no denying the enduring power of Robeson’s performance. His great stature, booming voice, theatrical bravado, and magnetic presence amply demonstrate why he bestrode the theatrical and musical worlds like a colossus. A genius? Undoubtedly. (DVD: Criterion)