VIDEO: "The Paul Robeson Centennial Collection"

"The Paul Robeson Centennial Collection"
Kino on Video

Where will you find the four-film "Paul Robeson Centennial Collection" at your local video store once they move it from the new-releases section? Surely none of the four will be listed under "Hollywood Classics," since three were British productions (Song of Freedom, 1936; Big Fella, 1937; and Jericho, 1937) and the other (Body and Soul, 1924) was directed by independent black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. Last time I looked, there wasn't a "Harlem Renaissance" shelf, since most people don't think of the black cultural boom of the '20s extending onto the screen.

It clearly did, though, as this collection testifies. Indeed, what better illustrates the international implications of Renaissance artists' fascination with Pan-African folk culture, for example, than pubs full of French and British workers singing Negro spirituals (Song of Freedom, Big Fella)? But this shelf would be short, in part because so many of Micheaux's films have been lost or destroyed. The "Interracial Solidarity" nook could house Big Fella; and while the two films set in Africa (Song of Freedom, Jericho) might find a home in the "Afrocentric" section, this might be problematic, because one mocks savage African "witch doctors" and both uncritically extol the merits of Western medicine. All four could be considered musicals--even the silent Body and Soul features a newly commissioned score performed by jazz quintet Honk, Wail and Moan--but that might lead viewers astray because they certainly don't fit the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire style of schmaltz. And although they're all romances, they're much broader than that niche implies, since Robeson intended these films to entirely recast black-film imagery.

Maybe it's best to put them in "The Paul Robeson Centennial Collection," because they so clearly reveal the vision of this singer, activist, and actor, a Pan-Africanist and communist fellow traveler once described as the best-known American in the world. But tragically, "Robeson" isn't a very well-known category anymore, thanks largely to the HUAC anti-heroes who helped banish the man from popular history. Look for Robeson under the heading: "Careers destroyed by McCarthy et al."

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