A Special Focus On The Renowned Actor, Singer & Political Activist
The BFI is celebrating the work of the towering Paul Robeson (1898-1976) as part of its BLACK STAR season and new Black Britain on Film collection, aiming to bring his work and legacy to a new generation of fans.
The American-born actor, singer, athlete, lawyer and political activist was a true transatlantic trailblazer with a central role in the American Civil Rights Movement, who found fame in the UK, and went on to make a significant impact in British film and theatre.
Paul Robeson travelled to the UK in the late 1920s, searching for opportunities that were not available for black actors in America at the time.
In the UK, he took to both stage and screen, becoming the first black actor to play Othello (1930) in over a century and originating the iconic role of ‘Joe’ in the West End theatre production of Show Boat and later in the film adaptation, which went on to become a box office hit.
Determined to break through the stereotypes associated with black actors, Paul Robeson was insistent on playing challenging and insightful roles and this can be seen through his work, particularly in The Proud Valley and Song of Freedom, the two films he cites as his most significant.
The BFI’s Paul Robeson retrospective will include screenings at BFI Southbank in London of 1940’s classic, The Proud Valley (dir. Pen Tennyson), a gritty and heartfelt social drama, in which Robeson plays an American stoker who finds work in a Welsh mining community; Song of Freedom (dir. J. Elder Wills, 1936), about a London dock-worker who finds fame and fortune as an opera singer and then uses his wealth to seek out his African heritage; Body and Soul (dir. Oscar Micheaux, 1925), Robeson’s feature film debut, where he stars as an escaped convict trying to pass as a local preacher in the Deep South; Jericho (dir. Thornton Freeland, 1937), which follows an American WWII soldier who flees to Africa after being unjustly sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit and becomes the powerful leader of an Arab tribe; Borderline (dir. Kenneth Macpherson, 1930), the ground-breaking psychological thriller about an interracial love triangle; and Show Boat (dir. James Whale), the musical in which Robeson originated the iconic role of Joe in both the West End theatre production in 1928 and the film adaptation in 1936, introducing audiences to his unforgettable rendition of the classic song, ‘Ol Man River.
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