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.Continue Reading
Raisin in the Sun
"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"
Langston Hughes' opening lines to his poem "A Dream Deferred" inspires the title of the film, which is adapted from Lorraine Hansberry's 1951 Broadway play. The story is about the working-class African American family in Chicago, each member struggling against the idea of deferred dreams. The way each character has to fight against generational prejudice to achieve their dreams makes a most powerful, touching story, as deep to the core of African American history. And while I want to cry at the injustices that bind many to social despair, I am inspired by the moments of strength that the human spirit can possess.Continue Reading
The Sound Of Music
Once upon a time in Hollywood, in the 1960s, big lavish adaptations of Broadway musicals were the hot ticket in movies, not just at the box-office but on Oscar night as well. Luckily Easy Rider, young driven counterculture, and the fall of the big studios eventually put an end to the era. Though I’m not generally a fan of musicals, I do have a lot of affection for The Sound Of Music. The film is carried by the charmingly virginal Julie Andrews as Maria, whose beautiful singing voice and pleasant manner take her from a charming nunnery to being nanny to a bunch of Austrian would-be Shirley Temples, and through song she cools the heels of their stern father Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), eventually wedding him. By Act Two, hours later, the happy Partridge-esq family now must flee Nazis taking over their beloved Alps homeland, but not before singing a few more songs to an adoring public. As hard as it may be to believe, shot by director Robert Wise in big, brash 70mm style, this is incredibly entertaining fluff.
Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) is in a huff because the rebellious Maria is bringing chaos to the Abby with her constant singing, so she wisely sends her off to bring her pep to the gloomy widowed Von Trapp and his passel of blond haired marching children. When around he treats his kids like young cadets, even the teensy ones, although he is usually hanging with the Baroness (Eleanor Parker, who later played three different characters on three episodes of TV’s Fantasy Island), a middle aged divorcee on the make with her scheming partner, the music promoter Max (Richard Haydn of Young Frankenstein). Maria quickly figures out all these young scamps need is love…. and music. Before you can say "Do-Re-Mi" she has them in Tabernacle Choir shape. At first Von Trapp is put off by Maria’s groovy ways but when he hears his kid’s powerful acapella version of “The Sound Of Music” this breaks the ice and he becomes a father of the year candidate. All is going well, Max even offers to manage the new musical family act. But the baroness feels threatened by the obviously younger and less leathery Maria, and convinces her to pack her bags, leave the family, and go back to Nunville. Dramatic! End of Act One.Continue Reading
The Wiz has one of the worst reputations in film history. It was a commercial and critical flop and is said to have ended not only Diana Ross' film career but Hollywood's investment in musicals and the era of black-centric movies that had recently evolved from blaxploitation to character driven drama and comedy. Made in 1978, it is the film version of the staged musical that took Broadway and the Tony's by storm in 1975. The staged production starred a teenage Stephanie Mills (who would later become an R&B sensation) who was also signed to play Dorothy in the film version. That role went to Diana Ross who critics, and even some involved with the production, felt was too old for the part. She was supported by an outstanding cast including a young and vibrant Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Ted Ross reprising his Tony award winning roll as the Cowardly Lion. Unfortunately, Joel Schumacher wrote a flimsy script using very little of the play's libretto and instead infused it with “feel good” jargon from motivational guru Werner Erhard including the song “Believe in Yourself.” The critics nailed the film and Ross' performance with brutal accuracy but also gave high praise to its practical production including costumes, choreography, and cinematography. In fact, it was nominated for 4 Oscars but failed to win any. As a child I was mesmerized by this film. Dorothy did seem too old in the beginning but as she began dancing down the yellow brick road her joy and beauty emerged until I thought she herself was magical. I remember rejoicing in the new “modern” versions of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. They felt so tangible and textured - more so than The Wizard of Oz of 1939. The Munchkins were kids, like me! And the people of Emerald City were extravagantly beautiful. I remember being frightened and on the edge of...Continue Reading