The 1936 movie musical Showboat helped make Paul Robeson a star. But none of his other films enjoyed the same success. In fact, you couldn't find most of them in a video store until now. The Criterion Collection dusts off seven Robeson films, including The Emperor Jones and Jericho, and released them in a new DVD set.
The movies reveal a man driven by the need to create compelling — and complicated — African-American characters. That need likely began with Robeson's parents; his mother was an abolitionist, his father a run-away slave. As a young man, Robeson worked his way into Rutgers University, where he was the only African-American in his class and suffered endless harassment. But that didn't keep him from graduating as the valedictorian of his class.
By the time Robeson earned a law degree from Columbia University, acting had become his passion. He'd paid for law school by taking small parts on the New York stage. And those soon turned into leading film roles, beginning with silents Body & Soul in 1925 and Borderline in 1930. But the movies and Paul Robeson made for an awkward pair until the advent of talkies unleashed his bottomless, bass voice on the world.