Steve McQueen plans film about Paul Robeson as follow-up to 12 Years a Slave
Singer, actor and activist, Robeson was one of the most famous people in the world until McCarthyite blacklisting from concert halls and film studios in the early 1950s.
Born to an escaped slave in 1898, Robeson was prodigiously talented, studying at Rutgers University under a scholarship before becoming a lawyer. However, the racism he faced in this profession lead to him towards a career on stage. Robeson made his fame in the musical Showboat and in particular with his stunning rendition of Ol' Man River, and for through his performance in Othello.
Alongside his acting and singing talents, Robeson was a commited activist, travelling the world to deliver a message of peace and equality. Whilst performing in Showboat on the West End Robeson was approached by unemployed Welsh miners who had walked to London to see him perfor, eventually leading to regular visits to mining communities in South Wales.
It was through one of these performances to miners that Mcqeen found out about Robeson. As a 14 year old, Mcqueen remembers a neighbour pushing a cutting about Robeson through his letter-box.
“It was about this black guy who was in Wales and was singing with these miners,” remembered McQueen. “I was about 14 years old, and not knowing who Paul Robeson was, this black American in Wales, it seemed strange. So then, of course, I just found out that this man was an incredible human being.”Jordan Goodman's 2013 book Paul Robeson: A Watched Man uses archival material from the FBI, the State Department, MI5 and other secret agencies to reveal the true extent of the US government’s fear of this heroic individual. The state oppression eventually took its tole on Robeson's career and mental health, despite his spirited defence of his long-held convictions and refusal to apologise in an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The film, which currently has no scheduled release-date, has the involvement of Robeson's freind and peer Harry Belafonte. Belafonte, who presented McQueen with the Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Media Hero award, said: “I am soon to be 88 years of age, and in the face of that raw and disturbing truth, I am so honoured and so rewarded that I should have lived long enough to see the emergence of a young man in the world of culture who delivered to us one of the quintessential works of art in film.”
Paul Robeson: A Watched Man is available to purchase from the Verso website with a 30% discount and a free bundled ebook.