By Evette D. Champion
Steve McQueen has been slated to direct a film about Paul Robeson, a beloved activist, actor, and singer. Many people are excited by the news, while others are confused by the choice.
For many years, McQueen had wanted to do a film about the icon, but he didn’t feel as though he had the ability to do Robeson’s story justice. Although it has been 38 years since his death, Robeson’s story will finally be told.
Robeson and his family moved to London in 1927 where they enjoyed the comforts of a Hampstead star. In 1928, Robeson starred in the role of Joe in Jerome Kern’s Showboat in London. This was the first musical to ever tackle hard topics such as racism and miscegenation that took place in the Deep South.
His performance in the musical received rave reviews and because of his presence on stage, there was a film adaptation made in 1936 which captured him at his best.
Another musical that Robeson starred in was Othello in 1930. When the show went to Broadway, it became one of the longest running Shakespeare show’s ever on Broadway.
Entertainment glory aside, Robeson may be most well-known for his contributions to the civil rights movement. Because he was an activist who urged for equality, the country punished his socialist views and it is believed that McCarthyism (the act of making accusations of subversion or treason without evidence), ruined his career in the 1950’s.
To many white men in power, Robeson was seen as a double threat because he was both #African American and Native American.
When Robeson traveled to the USSR during the 1930s, he took to the ideals of communism and believed “the power of the Soviet Union… would become an important factor in aiding the colonial liberation movement”.
During the Second World War, Robeson and his family returned to the United States. Initially, the public greeted him with high praises. Then, with his activism in full swing, he had a meeting with President Truman where he demanded legislation against lynching and he also supported the rise of trade unions.
Unfortunately, once the Cold War began, the Robeson’s travels to the USSR drew attention and they were called to testify in front of the McCarthy committee. Although there was no proof that the couple had ever joined the Communist party, they still refused to sign an affidavit that declared they were not communists. Thus began Paul Robeson’s fall from grace. He was blacklisted and he could not get any work. Because his passport was revoked, he could not travel for work, and his finances slowly dwindled.
Although Robeson was a recluse when he died, he was not forgotten. Carnegie Hall held a tribute concert for his 75th birthday. Although he could not attend the concert, he recorded a message which declared: “I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood.”