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The Criterion Collection presents
"Here's how we tore up the blacklist. Here's how we smashed the spy system under our feet. We fought the secret payroll. We won back our rights as Americans. We re-organized. We went on the march. No more fear in the streets. No more meetings in the dark. We carried our names in the open air."
DVD ReviewTo coincide with Black History Month, the Criterion Collection has put together a beautifully designed boxed set celebrating the work of one of the twentieth century's great figures, Paul Robeson. This is a welcome set regardless of the quality of the pictures within, as Robeson's life and career deserve to be remembered, both for the quality of his work and talent and the conditions under which it was sometimes abused. Gathering eight films and a book of essays, this box set won't be to every taste, but for those interested this is a treasure chest of material.
Robeson (1898-1976) may spark different reactions based on one's political leanings, but if we wish to summarize him in one sentence, we can say that he was an immensely talented individual whose career was shortened by the anti-Communist fervor of the 1950s and his own refusal to back down from his political principles. Born in 1898, Robeson distinguished himself early on, excelling at Rutgers as the only black student, where he was valedictorian as well as an All-American football player. Robeson moved into performing both as an actor and more notably as a singer, becoming forever associated with Ol' Man River, which he performed as part of the original cast of Show Boat. He became more strident about his political beliefs, standing firmly for racial and economic equality; this led eventually to his passport being revoked by the U.S. government, which considered his open (and certainly misguided) support for the Soviet Union dangerous. The resultant effect of this political battle left Robeson broken in terms of health and mental strength, and he never really recovered, dying in 1976.
Criterion's four-disc set is organized according to four themes: Icon, Outsider, Pioneer, and Citizen of the World. In a clever packaging touch, the four covers can be put together to form one large picture, as if we're putting together the disparate elements of Robeson's life. Anyway, the first disc, "Icon," contains, The Emperor Jones and Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist as its main features. The Emperor Jones, adapted from Eugene O'Neill's play (which Robeson starred in onstage) is the story of Brutus Jones, an ambitious guy who parlays a gig as a Pullman porter into bigger things, including murder and a stint as emperor of a small island. It's a terrifically entertaining film until the finale, in which Jones crumbles under the fear of voodoo, a sequence which just seems out of character, given everything we've seen till then. Dudley Digges also stars as an Australian smuggler/businessman with the worst accent I've ever heard. The film certainly lacks in racial sensitivity, but Robeson is excellent.
Filling out Disc 1 is the short documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist, made in 1979 by Saul J. Terrell. Narrated by Sidney Poitier, the main drawback of this work is its brevity. Still, what's here is well done, with Terrell making Robeson's changing performances of Ol' Man River a running motif to the way he approached his activist work. Clips from various films and events in Robeson's life get covered as well. For those looking for a more in depth film on Robeson's life, check out the PBS American Master episode on him, titled Paul Robeson: Here I Stand. On the "Outsider" disc, we have two wildly different films. The first is Oscar Micheaux's 1925 feature Body and Soul, followed by 1930's Borderline, directed by British film theorist Kenneth Macpherson. Body and Soul features Robeson in two roles, the first as a phony preacher, and the other as his good inventor brother. The editing is sometimes willfully strange, but I found the film quite entertaining despite its flaws. Why Robeson had to play two roles seems questionable, as the inventor brother has perhaps two minutes of screentime. The film has a lot of that though, especially concerning the preacher, whose story isn't delved into much in meaningful ways. Wycliffe Gordon's jazz score is a highlight.
Film theorist Kenneth Macpherson was a strident devotee of Eisensteinian montage, and Borderline is his love letter to that technique, so much so that it quickly grows tiresome. Robeson and his wife Eslanda play a couple who get involved in interracial affairs in a small European town, leading to scapegoating and lots and lots of loaded glances and incriminating looks. Even at 75 minutes, this feels way too long. Intertitles are kept to a minimum, and plenty is left to the viewer to decipher or interpret as they wish. There are numerous shots of great beauty, as well. The one film in this set that will no doubt leave the viewer enraptured or bored stiff. Courtney Pine's jazz score enlivens things.
The "Pioneer" disc holds the worst pair of films on the set, the paean to British colonialism Sanders of the River and the adventure tale Jericho. I'm not sure how these films demonstrate Robeson as a pioneer of anything; Sanders is a repellent and boring, with Leslie Banks as the British civil servant who keeps a firm hand on the savages who populate his area. These include a tribe led by Bosambo (Robeson), a good-natured native who takes control of the Ochuri tribe. He marries Lilongo (a hilariously miscast Nina Mae McKinney), and he leads his peaceful tribe until "Lord Sandi's" leave of absence causes the evil Mofolaba (Tony Wane) to foment rebellion. Lord Sandi has to come lay down the law and show the savages what's what. It's jingoistic slop meant to bolster British spirits, hoping to convince a few of them that their empire wasn't crumbing and that they were dispensing civilization to the backwards people of the world. Robeson was led to believe that the film would present a positive portrayal of Africa, talking up the film in interviews; when the film was released, he disowned it, trying even to buy the rights so he could bury it.
In 1937's Jericho, Robeson plays "Jericho" Jackson, a would-be doctor drafted into service during World War I. When he accidentally kills a sergeant during a U-boat attack while trying to save some trapped soldiers, he is harshly treated by the army brass, who can of course only see a threat to authority. Jericho takes a chance to escape, leaving his friend, Captain Mack (Henry Wilcoxon) to take the fall. Mack gets five years in Leavenworth and Jericho escapes to Africa, where he hooks up with a nomadic tribe, becoming their leader. Mack, meanwhile, gets out of prison wanting only one thing: revenge. Jericho has a passable story at its center, but too much of the film, even at 75 minutes or so, seems padded. There are two performances of the song My Way (not the one you're thinking of) which amount to musical numbers, the latter featuring the unintentional humor of seeing Robeson solemnly climbing a sand dune, only to reach the top and belt out a song. Wallace Ford is on hand as Robeson's sidekick, a role of completely unfunny comic relief.
We move now to Disc 4, titled "Citizen of the World." This disc contains two of the best films in the set, 1940's The Proud Valley and 1942's Native Land. The former is a tale of Welsh miners who are joined by former American seaman David Goliath (Robeson), who also joins their choir. The workers have to get the authorities to re-open a mine that has been closed, leading to an eventual sacrifice on Goliath's part. It's a pro-workers movie, and despite a too-friendly to be believed relationship with the authorities (due to the war), it's a compact, potent piece of work.
Native Land was produced over a period of several years due to a lack of funds on the producers' part, but the end product is an amazing piece of agit-prop documentary designed to trumpet the union cause. Taking actual stories of vicious crimes against union members and other left-leaning individuals by business and police and staging re-enactments, Robeson's bravura performance as narrator keeps the tone from getting too strident or hysterical. He is always calm, rationally asking such questions as "Where was the Bill of Rights?" after we see men killed over their union involvement. Being propaganda, this is not nuanced material for the most part; the minions of the money men are cold, blank-faced killers, and the money men themselves sneering creeps. But the way it's pitched is very matter of fact. It's gripping stuff and sure to anger some even today.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The films have all been given new HD-transfers with the exception of The Emperor Jones, which is a standard def transfer. I don't see much to complain about that isn't already a part of the prints themselves; a couple of the films have occasional missing frames and jumps, and some feature a heavier than expected number of scratches and blemishes. These films weren't going to get massive restorations in any event, so we take what we get, and it's quite acceptable.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Original mono is provided on the sound films; the two silents have new stereo scores, and it all sounds clean and solid. The stereo scores sound very good.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 124 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Pearl Bowser (on Body and Soul, Jeffrey C. Stewart (on Emperor Jones)
Packaging: Box Set
There are four video supplements here: Our Paul: Remembering Paul Robeson (19m:06s) features interviews with James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee, and William Greaves talk about their relationships with Robeson and his work; Robeson on Robeson (11m:27s) is an interview with Paul Robeson Jr.; True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson (33m:26s) looks at the films Robeson made during his extended stay in the UK, featuring numerous clips and interviews with film historians Ian Christie and Stephen Bourne; and The Story of Native Land (13m:57s) is an interview with cinematographer Ton Hurwitz, the son of Native Land producer Leo Hurwitz. All four are worth watching, with the latter two providing worthwhile information about the films themselves, while the first two take a more personal look at Robeson, in addition to his work.
Lastly, there is a solid interview with Robeson from Pacifica Radio (31m:05s), made in 1958 that allows the man to speak for himself at length. And finally, there is the 75-page book that includes essays and material from Robeson himself, in addition to detailed cast and crew listings. The set itself in packaged within four foldout digipaks, the cover of each forming a piece of a portrait of Robeson. I'm not crazy about digipaks as a general rule, given their fragility, but this does look quite nice.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsThe seven feature films contained within this set are a decidedly mixed bag, ranging from the excellent (Body and Soul, The Proud Valley, Native Land) to the wretched (Sanders of the River) to the simply odd (Borderline). Film never allowed Robeson to live up to his immense talent, a fact the entries here provide some plain evidence of. This set, however, operates as a time capsule in many ways, giving us a look at one of the first major black stars and the constraints he operated under in trying to make films of which he could be proud. Robeson was treated despicably by authorities in the United States, and his courage and passion for justice deserve to be remembered by more than a select few, something this set will hopefully rectify.
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