Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Criterion Collection – Paul Robeson, Portrait of the Artist

James Baldwin (1924-1987)
James Baldwin (1924-1987)

In 1965, the American writer James Baldwin wrote:

“At a time when there seemed to be no hope at all, Paul Robeson [1898-1976] spoke out for all of us.”

By “all of us,” Baldwin is, of course, referring to Black America.

In 1998, the American scholar, historian, author, and social historian Lerone Bennett expanded on Baldwin’s comment, writing:

“Before King dreamed, before Thurgood Marshall petitioned and Sidney Poitier emoted, before the big breakthrough in Hollywood and Washington, before the Jim Crow signs came down, and before the civil rights banners went up, before Spike Lee, before Denzel, before Sam Jackson and Jesse Jackson, there was Paul Robeson. One of the most phenomenally gifted men ever born in America, he lived one of the most extraordinary stories of the century. When he died, even his critics and detractors conceded that he was one of the immortals.”

Clement Price (1945-2014)
Clement Price (1945-2014)

According to the American historian Dr. Clement Alexander Price, who was the Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of History at the Newark, NJ campus of Rutgers University:

“Called by some ‘The Great Forerunner’ and others the ‘Tallest Tree in Our Forest,’ Paul Robeson is without peer in the annals of modern American civilization. His was a life rich with intellectual and emotional complexity and poignancy, unfolding during the United States’ most eventful times, a long and troubled era to which he contributed his talent and his willingness to challenge the prevailing conventions of racism, imperialism, and social injustice.

His trailblazing career in film, during the 1920s and 1930s, was only one of the many facets of his extraordinary life, but it was pivotal to the emergence of a black film aesthetic and, by extension, an African-American cultural identity. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to understand the intersection of racism, colonialist influences on popular culture, and black artistic concerns without considering what Paul Robeson accomplished as a singer, stage and film star, and activist and, alas, what he left undone because of the tenor of his times.”

“Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist”

Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist
Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist

The prescribed set of discs – The Criterion Collection: Paul Robeson, Portrait of the Artist – includes a twenty minute documentary entitled “Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist.” Fairly brief, yes, but superbly done. It consists of footage from Robeson’s films and concerts and interviews with the actors James Earl Jones (born 1931) and Ruby Dee (1922-2014), and the filmmaker William Greaves (1926-2014). Narrated by Sidney Poitier (1927-2022), the documentary explores aspects of Robeson’s artistic life and political activism and is a must see. …

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