Paul Robeson Portraits of the Artist
It's so easy to name all the things Paul Robeson was: son of an ex-slave who himself went on to graduate from college and become a minister; only the third black student ever accepted at Rutgers (and the only one on campus at the time); astar athlete and All-American; valedictorian; law school graduate and practicing attorney; singer; concert virtuoso; writer; thinker; activist; Socialist; Broadway star; Shakespearean actor; enemy of the United States; self-exiled expatriate—that it's easy to forget what he's not. A superstar. Granted, he's a well-worn icon in the world of ethnic entertainers, a premier example of stoicism and skill overcoming some of the most tenuous and tumultuous times in American history. Yet no matter how many degrees he hung on his wall or battles he chose to fight for both himself and his people, the films he made are not the missing masterpieces in the overall history of African-American cinema. Instead, they are obvious examples of one amazing human figure being improperly pigeonholed within a horribly racist entertainment dynamic. That's the chief revelation to be gleaned from the Criterion Collection's new box-set release, Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist. His body of work may be impressive for what it means, given the background of when and where it was created. But this is a clear case of the whole being much more valuable than the many pieces that comprise it.

4 x DVD9 | NTSC 4:3 | 586 minutes | 7.41 Gb + 7.47 Gb + 7.53 Gb + 7.72 Gb + 3% rec
Language: English
Subtitles: English
Genre: Drama, Music, Musical, Adventure, History, Documentary, Short, Biography

He only made 11 films in his lifetime, mostly because he was disgusted by the kinds of roles Hollywood offered minorities. He also lent his name to a well-meaning documentary about the plight of justice and equality in the United States. Of his creative canon, only a few select titles stand out. As part of this Criterion Collection box set, six of Robeson's starring roles are present. Missing of course are Show Boat, Song of Freedom, King Solomon's Mines, Big Fella, and Tales of Manhattan. While this might disturb some purists, it's also worth noting that this compilation contains his earliest silent films as well as his best known performance in the Eugene O'Neill narrative The Emperor Jones. Specifically, here is what this impressive package has to offer:

DISC ONE - Paul Robeson: Icon

The Emperor Jones (1933)
After getting a job with the Pullman Train Company as a porter, small-town dreamer Brutus Jones (Paul Robeson) gets taken in by big-city life. Before you know it, he's stealing his best friendA's gal pal and gambling away his paycheck. When a bar fight turns fatal, Jones goes to jail. He escapes and steals aboard a commercial liner bound for the Caribbean. Looking to the nearest island for sanctuary, he jumps ship and ends up in a tiny village run by a crooked king. It's not long before Jones takes over, and turns despotic.

Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)
A 25-minute documentary on Robeson's life and times focuses almost exclusively on his career in front of the camera, on stage, and as a vocal critic of U.S. policies toward minorities.

DISC TWO - Paul Robeson: Outsider

Body and Soul (1925)
An escaped criminal posing as a preacher (Paul Robeson) stumbles upon a small town, where he quickly begins bilking the residents out of their hard-earned dollars. He shakes down a small-time club owner who runs an illegal gambling racket on the side, and even violates a naive young girl after befriending her spiritually oriented mother. But when a recently released cellmate shows up in town, the Reverend's grifting ways may be exposed once and for all.

Borderline (1930)
In a racist European town, the relationship between a married white man and an African-American girl stuns everyone—all, that is, except the patrons of a bar run by two liberal women. They even allow a black visitor named Pete (Paul Robeson) to stay in their boarding house. Pete once loved the adulterous woman and he still has strong feelings for her. But the desperate spouse of the cheating husband is put on edge by the scandalous affair—and has revenge on her mind.

DISC THREE - Paul Robeson: Pioneer

Sanders of the River (1935)
Lord "Sandi" (Leslie Banks, Jamaica Inn) Sanders is the British District Officer of Nigeria, charged by the crown to maintain the law up and down the river. The tribes all palaver with the cunning bureaucrat, a man they've come to fear and respect—all except one. King Mofolaba fancies himself above the English and causes random chaos for the surrounding citizenry. When a new chieftain, Bosambo (Paul Robeson), approaches Sandi regarding the situation, he is given the promise of power. But after taking matters into his own hands, Bosambo is targeted by Mofolaba's warriors. In the end, it is Sandi who must save the day.

Jericho (1937)
While crossing the Atlantic on their way to World War I, a boat loaded with U.S. soldiers is struck by a torpedo. During the response, likable Lt. Jericho Jackson (Paul Robeson) accidentally kills a superior officer. The resulting court martial condemns him to death. On Christmas Eve, a desperate Jericho escapes, steals a fishing boat, and makes his way to Africa. Along for the ride is a wisecracking expatriate named Mike Clancy (Wallace Ford, A Patch of Blue). Soon, the pair finds themselves living amongst one of the many desert tribes. Jericho becomes a leader, and helps guide the people toward prosperity. In the meantime, a friend and fellow solider, Captain Mack (Henry Wilcoxon, Caddyshack), seeks revenge on the deserter.

DISC FOUR - Paul Robeson: Citizen of the World

The Proud Valley (1940)
Hoping to find work in Wales, David Goliath (Paul Robeson) hops a train and winds up in a small mining town. There, his powerful physique and magnificent singing voice get the attention of the choir director, and Goliath soon finds himself down in the pit, excavating coal. When a cave-in leads to disaster, the mine is closed and all the workers are left unemployed. Hoping to convince the owners to reopen the facility, Goliath helps a young man lead a group of activists in a walk to London. Along the way, they learn war has been declared, and hope to use the nation's needs to get the mine up and running again.

Native Land (1942)
In an intriguing documentary that wants to trace the notion of liberty and its application and abuse over the course of American history, actor/singer Paul Robeson lends his distinctive voice over narration. We see stories involving the murder of sharecroppers, the torture of men by the Ku Klux Klan, and the incredibly incendiary activities of an anti-union corporate spy. While all of these sequences are dramatic recreations, they are based on actual fact. Indeed, these incidents were reported to the Senate Civil Liberties Committee in 1938. Throughout it all, Robeson sings, and suggests ways to avoid this obvious "fascism" at home.

• Full-length Audio Commentary on "Body and Soul" by Oscar Micheaux historian Pearl Bowser
• Full-length Audio Commentary on "The Emperor Jones" by Jeffery C. Stewart
• 'Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist' Documentary
• New Jazz Score for "Body and Soul" by Wycliffe Gordon
• New Jazz Score for "Borderline" by Courtney Pine
• Pacifica Radio Interview with Paul Robeson (1958)
• 'True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson', a new video program featuring interviews with Paul Robeson Jr. and film historians Stephen Bourne and Ian Christie, and including film clips from Song of Freedom (1936), King Solomon's Mines (1937), and Big Fella (1937
• 'The Story of Native Land', a new video interview with cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, son of Frontier Films cofounder and Native Land codirector Leo Hurwitz
• 'Our Paul Remembered', a new video program including interviews with filmmaker William Greaves and actors Ruby Dee and James Earl Jones
• 'Robeson on Robeson', a new interview with Paul Robeson Jr. about his father's career and art

Related posts:

  1. The Val Lewton Horror Collection: Cat People (1942), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Leopard Man (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945), Bedlam (1946), The Seventh Victim (1943), Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy (2005) 5 x DVD9
  2. Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project: Touki Bouki / Journey of the Hyena (1973), Redes / The Wave (1936), Titash Ekti Nadir Naam / A River Called Titas (1973), Susuz yaz / Dry Summer (1963), Trances / Transes (1981), Hanyo / The Housemaid (1960) 6 x DVD and 3 x Blu-Ray Criterion Collection
  3. Walk the Proud Land / L’homme de San Carlos (1956) DVD9
  4. Widerbergboxen (Bo Widerberg Collection): Joe Hill (1971), Fimpen / The Butt (1974), Victoria (1979), En handelsresandes dod / Death of a Salesman (1979), Lust och fagring stor / All Things Fair (1995), Liv till varje pris / Life at Any Cost (1998) 6 x DVD9
  5. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) 2 x DVD9 and Blu-Ray Criterion Collection