Steve McQueen Says Paul Robeson Was "the Renaissance Man" of the 20th Century

Paul Robeson - Show Boat (1936) -Photofest-H 2016
Universal Pictures/Photofest

The British Film Institute is holding a special retrospective of the actor and activist, who had a near-lifelong bond with the U.K., as part of its Black Star season.

Almost 100 years since he first crossed the Atlantic from the U.S. to the U.K., Paul Robeson is taking center stage in a major British Film Institute season.

While many in the U.K. (and even the U.S.) may be unfamiliar with the actor, singer, athlete, lawyer and political activist or only recognize the name, of all the American figures featuring in Black Star — the biggest celebration of black talent on screen that is running nationwide in Britain until the end of the year — Robeson has the closest affinity with its shores.

It was a land he would regularly call home in the 1920s and 1930s, somewhere his star could shine brightest, and somewhere he developed a close bond with its people, a bond he would cherish long after he returned to Jim Crow-era U.S. and — infamously — face blacklisting and persecution from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI that would restrict his abilities to travel and perform for much of his later working life.

“For me, Paul Robeson is the renaissance man of the 20th century,” Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, who has been working on a biopic of the man, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

“He was the first big, black star in British cinema,” adds BFI curator Jo Botting. “And it was British cinema that brought him the stardom that he didn’t get in the same way in the States.”

A towering man with an unmistakable bass-baritone voice, Robeson first sailed to the U.K. in 1922 to appear on a tour of the Louisiana plantation-set stage play Voodoo (performed in the U.S. as Taboo). Although the production wasn’t a huge success, closing abruptly before it had a chance to hit London, he instantly found a connection with a country where the color of his skin didn’t prove to be an obstacle. He wrote about his warm welcome several times to his wife Essie back in the U.S., whom he would return to after two months.

Three years later, a 27-year-old Robeson would sail back across the Atlantic, this time with Essie and a proved hit, Eugene O’Neil’s The Emperor Jones. The opening night in London was the start of the actor’s international explosion, with Essie commenting in her diary that he took "10 curtain calls" and was even forced to make a speech.

He would replicate this in 1928 with Show Boat, already a Broadway smash, at the famed Drury Lane Theatre, from which the song "Ol' Man River" would become his signature piece. One noted performance saw England’s Queen Mary (the grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II) turn up unexpectedly, the subsequent fanfare forcing a nervous Robeson to sing a tone off-key. She would return for a second performance.

And in 1930 his permanent residence in London was underlined further with his near-legendary turn as Othello at the Savoy Theater, making him the first black actor to attempt the role in a century (and a performance he’d take to Broadway in the 1940s with award-winning results).

With the actor’s celebrity star rising in London, he was attracting the company of such notables as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley. He also was living in a small mansion he’d purchased in an exclusive neighborhood of the city’s leafy Hampstead (where a blue plaque commemorating his time there was unveiled in 2002).

"In London, he could live like any other actor or performer,” adds Botting. “In the U.S, there would have been certain places he couldn’t have lived."

London was also somewhere Robeson could fully embrace his African heritage. Not only did he take up linguistic classes at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies, where there are now student residences named after him), studying several languages including Swahili, but he befriended prominent African activists who would go on to become leaders of their countries after independence, including Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.

McQueen turns to a line taken from the late U.K. politician Tony Benn (who saw Robeson perform "Ol' Man River" as a child in the House of Commons). "Paul became an African in the U.K.," he says.

But while he was rubbing shoulders with the upper echelons of British society, it was around this time that he would develop one of his strongest and life-affirming relationships with a group from the other side of the class divide.

On his way to a gala fair in London in late 1929, Robeson met a group of miners who had walked all the way from Wales to petition the government for help in the economic doom of the Great Depression, and were singing to raise money. He joined the troupe in song, performing "Ol' Man River" to his new friends, and later organizing contributions to help them ride back home on a freight train, including a carload of food and clothing. A lifelong bond was established.

“Robeson felt a strong affinity with Wales and the Welsh miners,” says Nathalie Morris, the BFI National Archive’s senior curator, adding that he would regularly perform in the country and support related causes.

It was this connection that first piqued the interest of McQueen, who while growing up in London in the 1970s had a neighbor who would pop newspaper articles on politics and art through the letterbox for him.

“He lived alone, and one day he gave me a pamphlet about an anniversary celebration of Paul Robeson’s life given by Welsh miners,” the 12 Years a Slave director says. “This more than raised my eyebrows, as I couldn’t connect an African American and Welsh miners.”

As he moved from stage to film, it was his affinity with the working classes of the U.K. that gave him his most celebrated roles. His first British screen performance was the groundbreaking black-and-white avant-garde drama Borderline in 1930 (he’d already had his debut in the 1925 race drama Body and Soul), while his mainstream breakout was Sanders of the River in 1935, although the colonial tale and glorification of the British empire that came in Alexander Korda’s reedit forced him to disown the film.

“But then what happened was that scripts were written for him,” says Botting, pointing to 1936’s Song of Freedom, telling the story of a black dockworker in England whose operatic voice catapults him into global fame. “That film was written especially for him, to draw all of his talents. For me, that’s where his film career in Britain really gets interesting.”

Underlining his star, Robeson was given final cut approval on Song of Freedom, something that Ashley Clark, the BFI Black Star season programmer, says was “an unprecedented option at any time for an actor of any race.”

Then in 1940 came The Proud Valley, which Robeson would later describe as his favorite performance, in which he played an American who becomes a working-class hero among the miners of Wales, helping to improve their conditions and ultimately sacrificing his own life to save colleagues during an accident.

“Not only is he big and strong and with a fantastic singing voice, but these roles were extremely intelligent and moral characters, parts he would never have played in America,” says Botting. “If you consider Gone With the Wind (1939), which was considered a coup for black actors, and look at the parts they got…the nannies.”

The Proud Valley would be Robeson’s sixth and last film in the U.K. After years of living in London and using it as a base for trips into Europe and to the U.S, he returned to his homeland permanently as WWII broke out. But the friendships he had made in the U.K. would remain strong as ever.

“When Robeson’s passport was revoked by the American authorities in 1950, the South Wales miners were among the protestors who lobbied the U.S. government for its return,” says Morris.

This Welsh connection will be highlighted in the Black Star season, with a remastered version of The Proud Valley going on a tour, starting with a performance in the Welsh capital Cardiff on Sunday, accompanied by a performance from the Treorchy Male Choir. Elsewhere, there will be screenings of Song of Freedom, Borderline and Body and Soul, plus others such as Jericho and Show Boat, the adaptation of the musical. Films will also be made available on the BFI Player from Friday, while an exhibition will run at the BFI Southbank until the end of the year.

In the meantime, McQueen is doing his best to bring this former cultural giant back into the public conscience with his upcoming biopic. He says he’s “in the middle of in-depth research,” with plans to put pen to paper in December.

“I would like him to be remembered as the important person he was,” he says. “A person who fearlessly put truth and freedom first in the face of adversity.”