Despite his many legendary accomplishments it's fair to say that Paul Robeson's film career was not stellar. And it’s not just me saying that. Robeson himself said on several occasions that his film career was more disappointing than he would have liked.
Of the 13 films he made from 1925 to his last film in 1942, before giving up on films altogether, many of them he, no doubt, went into with the best of intentions. But, they always fell into the usual trap of stereotypical portrayals and clichés.
One film in particular, the 1935 British film Sanders of the River was radically changed during post-production with re-shoots to make the film a stirring, jingoistic tribute to British colonialism in Africa, and made Robeson’s Nigerian tribal chief leader in the film more subservient to the white colonel Sanders character.
In fact Robeson reportedly walked out on the film at the London premiere and later tried to buy all existing prints of the film to prevent it from being shown, but failed. Though he later said about Sanders that "the imperialist plot had been placed in the plot during the last days five days of shooting...I was roped into the picture because I wanted to portray the culture of the African people and I committed a faux pas which convinced me that I had failed to weigh the problems of 150,000,000 native Africans...I hate the picture."
Of those 13 films he made, 7 were made in the U.K. from 1935 to 1940 (including Sanders) where Robeson was living at the time, but it is the last British film he made, Proud Valley, that he was most proudest, of all the films he made.
He said, of the film, that he wanted very much to make it since it would “depict the Negro as he really is—not the caricature he is always represented to be on the screen." And the film definitely reflects Robeson's own political beliefs of brotherhood and the humanity of all races and cultures and his fervent leftist politics supporting the working man. Those very same beliefs which resulted in Robeson being hounded and persecuted by the U.S. Government during the 1950's “Red Scare.”
In the movie, Robeson plays a wanderer who winds up in a small Welsh mining town who becomes a miner and eventually the town’s hero. And of course with that magnificent voice of his, there’s no question that he also joins the town’s male choir. One of the highlights of the film involves a national chorus completion in which the town choir performs Deep River with Robeson as the lead soloist. No surprise that they win the contest. (You can hear a recording of it below)
The film was the last of only three films directed by Pen Tennyson who went on to a major career as a film director until it was cut short at the outset of World War II. A commissioned officer in the Royal Navy, Tennyson was killed in a plane crash the year after the release of Proud Valley, while making an instructional film on location for the Navy.
And the film is actually based on a real black coal miner from West Virginia who found himself working as miner in a town in Wales.
Unlike his more popular earlier film, The Emperor Jones, Proud Valley is not seen much often, if at all. But this week you'll have a rare opportunity when it's shown on Turner Classic Movies cable channel this Thursday April 4 at 12:15PM (11:15PM Central time).
Here’s Deep River sung by Robeson: