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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Fifty years ago, while Ghanaians were celebrating their independence, America was trying to constrain the freedom of actor/activist Paul Robeson. In 1950, after he refused to disavow ties with the Communist Party, the U.S. government grounded him. He couldn't travel abroad, where his politics has made him an icon. And he couldn't work here, where those same politics had made him deeply unpopular with Cold War America.

NPR's Cory Turner has the story.

(Soundbite of a movie, "Showboat")

(Soundbite of song, "Ol' Man River")

Mr. PAUL ROBESON (Singer, Actor): (As Joe) (Singing) Ol' Man river, that ol' man river. He must know something. But don't say nothing.

CORY TURNER: For me, "Ol' Man River" ranks up there with Fred Astaire twirling his top hat and Gene Kelly's "Singing in the Rain." But in the 1936 movie version of "Show Boat," the great bass Paul Robeson isn't dancing. He's sitting on the bank of the Mississippi, exhausted by a lifetime of racism and hard work.

(Soundbite of song, "Ol' Man River")

Mr. ROBESON: (As Joe) (Singing) Tote that barge, lift that bale. You gets a little drunk and you lands in jail.

TURNER: "Ol' Man River" made 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 has dusted off seven of them and released them in a new set. Normally, I'm not a box set kind of guy. Movies fall off the face of the earth for a reason - like, they're bad. And at least one of these pictures is pretty hard to watch. But together, they tell a heck of a story.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBESON: (Singing) Oh, ho, oh, oh, oh.

TURNER: Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey - 1898. His mother was an abolitionist, his father a runaway slave. Young Paul was the only African-American in his class at Rutgers University, where he suffered endless racist taunt and worse.

Robeson had a knack for getting the last laugh. He made football all-American twice and graduated valedictorian. By the time he earned a law degree from Columbia University, acting had become his passion. He paid for law school by taking small parts in New York stage. And those soon turned into leading roles.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Emperor Jones")

Mr. ROBESON: (As Brutus Jones) (Singing) All aboard. Where are you hiding?

TURNER: In 1933, Paul Robeson appeared in "The Emperor Jones," a film version of Eugene O'Neill play he'd made famous. Jones is a huckster who cons his way from a porter's job in a Jim Crow South to self-proclaimed ruler of a Caribbean island. It's a rich part that allowed Robeson to turn the tables on American bigotry. Here, Emperor Jones threatens the life of his weaselly white sidekick.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Emperor Jones")

Mr. ROBESON: (As Brutus Jones) Maybe, I'll does kill one white man back there? Maybe I does. And maybe I kills another right here so long as he don't look out.

Mr. DUDLEY DIGGES (Actor): (As Smithers) Do you think I'd preach on you? No me. I'm your friend, ain't I?

Mr. ROBESON: (As Brutus Jones) Sure you is. And you better be.

TURNER: Hollywood just wasn't ready for this kind of willful black character. And Robeson wasn't willing to play anything less. So he and his wife packed their bags and moved to England. There, Robeson top-lined a string of politically progressive films, except for this one, his first.

(Soundbite of clip from movie, "Sanders of the River")

Mr. ROBESON: (As Bosambo) I came to tell you about a very high and important matter.

Mr. LESLIE BANKS (Actor): (As Commissioner R.G. Sanders) Is that not a lie, Bosambo?

Mr. ROBESON: Lord Sandy, I'd lie to anybody if I think it is good for me. But I will never lie to you.

TURNER: In "Sanders of the River," Robeson plays - and I'm not kidding here -an African Chief named Bosambo. Wearing nothing but a leopard skin loincloth, he helps an idealized British officer protect the natives from - well, themselves. Here's Robeson preparing to go to war for the queen.

(Soundbite of clip from movie, "Sanders of the River")

(Soundbite of movie)

Mr. ROBESON: (As Bosambo) (Singing) On, call me into battle. Make the war drums rattle. Mow them down like cattle. On and on, call on me into battle. Stamp them into the dust, into the dust.

TURNER: According to Paul Robeson, Jr., his parents attended the film's American opening together. And the movies pro-colonial tone surprised and embarrassed his father.

Mr. PAUL ROBESON, JR. (Paul Robeson's Son): Mom looks up, and he pretends to be going to the bathroom or something. And she realized, uh-oh, he's out of there. So she up - and yes, sure enough, he went back to the apartment, which isn't that far. Says he goes back, and she says you can't do this. You got to go back. So they had this big argument. And she says, look, Paul. Jomo Kenyatta is sitting up there, and he's got a bit part in there, and all the Africans are staying there. You can't be more African than the Africans. Get over it.

TURNER: Unbeknownst to Robeson, British censors had forced the film's director to make a number of changes that glorified British colonialism. But again, Robeson got the last laugh. He parlayed his increasing popularity as a singer into new, unprecedented creative control over his films.

His next picture, "Jericho," was different. Robeson plays an American GI. When he accidentally kills a man to save the lives of several comrades, he's thrown in the brig.

(Soundbite of movie, "Jericho")

Mr. ROBESON: (As Jericho Jackson) I'm grateful to you, Captain. I know you're doing everything.

Mr. HENRY WILCOXON (Actor): (As Captain Mack) Oh, I know it's tough, all right. But then, war is tough, isn't it?

Mr. ROBESON: Yes, war. Did I want to learn how to kill? No, but they taught me and taught me until my arms ached with sticking steel into sandbags. These hands that I want to use to heal, to save life, to give life, turned into hands for killing.

TURNER: Robeson's hero escapes to North Africa and settles in the Sahara. There he becomes a doctor, marries and starts a family. In other words, he plays a complex character, like his white contemporaries, Gary Cooper or Clark Gable. Remember, this was that late 1930s. Name one American film with a black actor in a role like this at the time. Definitely not Stepin Fetchit.

Unidentified Woman: Help me, Philip. Tell the (unintelligible) that ain't no job for (unintelligible). (Unintelligible) and you know me, (unintelligible) and shallow…

TURNER: Not even Hattie McDaniel's' Oscar-winning role in "Gone with the Wind" can compare with Robeson.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gone with the Wind")

Ms. VIVIEN LEIGH (Actress): (as Scarlett O'Hara) Now, Mammy, darling.

Ms. HATTIE MCDANIEL (Actress): (as Mammy) No use to try to sweet talk me, Ms. Scarlett. I know you ever took (unintelligible) on you. I said, I'll (unintelligible) with you and (unintelligible) I is.

TURNER: Paul Robeson, Jr.

Mr. ROBESON JR.: He had a profound impact on the image that the American people as a whole - black and white - have of black people, and especially black males as human beings.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBESON: (Singing) My way leads to good green pastures. My way leads to big, high mountains. Lonely road with a heavy load. Brother, are you walking my way?

TURNER: After "Jericho," Robeson's politics took over his movies, as if creating strong, black characters just wasn't enough anymore. His last film, "Nativeland" finds Robeson narrating a documentary-style critique of racism and cheering the rise of American unions. It was his communist manifesto.

(Soundbite of clip from movie, "Nativeland")

Mr. ROBESON: Here in their organizations was the new strength of the people: AF of L and CIO. And railroad brotherhoods. Millions of little people banded together to protect each other.

TURNER: Following World War II, Robeson limited much of his performing to political causes. He traveled the world, rubbing elbows with the communist elite. He even sang that Chinese national anthem.

Mr. ROBESON: (Singing in Chinese)

TURNER: When Robeson returned to the U.S. in 1950, the State Department revoked his passport. His politics have made him persona non grata, and his career came to a standstill. The bottomless base voice that had raged for a quarter century fell silent.

(Soundbite of song, "All Through the Night")

Mr. ROBESON: (Singing) Back to work with no refining, all through the night.

TURNER: But once again, Robeson got the last laugh. Just before the first movie in the new Criterion set begins, the "Emperor Jones," you'll see a grainy black screen with big white letters. It reads: This film was restored by the Library of Congress.

(Soundbite of song, "Ballad for Americans")

Mr. ROBESON: (Singing) For I have always believed it, and I believe it now. And do you know who I am?

Unidentified Group: Who are you?

Mr. ROBESON: (Singing) America.

TURNER: Cory Turner, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Ol' Man River")

Mr. ROBESON: (Singing) Ol' man river. That ol' man river. He must know something, but don't say nothing. He just keep rolling. He keeps on rolling along.

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today, and thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. And you know you can always to npr.org and go npr.org/contact us and find out how you can e-mail us about all the programming we do. We're so glad that you're tuning in.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Tomorrow, new questions about for-profit colleges.

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