Following up on Tambay’s piece on Paul Robeson and the need for a bio-pic about his life and career (HERE), comes news, perfect timing in fact, that Turner Classic Movies will broadcast Robeson’s 1935 British film, "Sanders of the River," on Tuesday, June 24 at 11:30PM (10:30PM Central).
It was was a breakout film for Robeson in many ways, though it clearly was not one that turned out the way he wanted, or even remotely liked. And despite his many legendary accomplishments in sports while in college, on the stage, in music and in political activism, it's fair to say that Robeson's film career was not the greatest. And that’s not just my own opinion. 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, he went into most of them with the best of intentions. But, they always fell into the usual trap of stereotypical portrayals and clichés.
But of all his films, "Sanders of the River" stands out the most.
Produced and directed by the Alexander Korda and his brother Zoltan, who were the biggest and most important British filmmakers during the 1930’s and 40’s, Robeson agreed to make the film, because, as he was was quoted, “of a passionate concern with African culture."
The film deals with a kind, benevolent white British colonial offer named Sanders (played by Leslie Banks) in Africa, and his troubles trying to keep the peace among various African tribes, along with his right hand man Bosambo, played by Robeson.
However, the film was radically changed during post-production, with re-shoots and new scenes added that were not in the original script, to make the film more of a stirring, jingoistic tribute to British colonialism in Africa, making Robeson’s tribal chief leader in the film more subservient to the white Sanders character.
The film’s tone is set immediately just after the opening credits, with the title card: “AFRICA - Tens of millions of natives under British rule, each tribe with its own chieftain governed and protected by a handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency.”
After that, it’s pretty clear where the film is going.
There are other troublesome things, such as Africans being called Sanders’ “black children;” the film's rather blatantly patronizing attitude; and, not to mention, of course, the usual stereotypes of Africans that would have comfortably fit right in a Tarzan movie.
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."
And yet how much of Robeson claiming that he had been duped is true? Throughout the film, he constantly calls Sanders “Lord Sandy” and twice sings a song in his honor, heralding him practically as lord and master over all of Africa: “Sandy the Strong/Sandy the Wise/Righter of wrongs/Hater of lies…”
In addition, there are some really groan-worthy lines that Robeson says in the film, like: “Every time I have seen the beautiful face of your great King, my heart is filled with joy."
So while it is true that the film was changed during post-production, the fact of the matter is that Robeson is in several of the most embarrassing and offensive scenes in it, so he can’t exactly claim ignorance.
However, one can argue, as some have, that Robeson’s performance as Bosambo is actually more subversive in tone; That with a slight wink in his eye and a sly underhanded smile, his character is actually “playing” with Sanders, manipulating him. Seemingly acting subservient and dutiful, he is actually, in a sort of Machiavellian way, using Sanders to gain his own power over all the various tribes which he does get at the end. Looking at it that way does indeed make the film look a lot more interesting.
And there’s the curious addition of Nina Mae McKinney (the star of director King Vidor’s 1929 all black musical drama "Hallelujah," who was the first real black female Hollywood star), playing Bosambo's love interest and wife. The actress would quickly find out that there were no roles for her, and her appearance in "Sanders" did not result in the kind of breakthrough in her career that she hoped it would be. Although their first scene together, when Bosambo meets her, is terrific (pictured above), with some funny and even still current dialogue:
- Robeson (with a lustful look in his eyes): “Hey girl, what’s your name? Where do you come from?"
- McKinney: "You wouldn’t know the place. I’m from the coast.”
- Robeson: "I know all about the coast" (with a wicked grin on his face) “We can talk all about that later."
Still, despite all its problems, it is Robeson who commands the film from his first entrance, literally towering over everyone. One cannot deny his sheer charisma and overpowering physical presence, When Robeson was on the screen, Robeson was on the screen, if you understand what I mean.
And of course, there's that voice - that magnificent, resonant, emotionally powerful voice. One of the greatest singers ever; and Robeson does sing a few songs in the film, as every minute counts.
To hear for him yourself, here's a clip of Robeson singing "Deep River" from another British film titled "Pound Valley," made by Robeson in 1940, and perhaps one of the few films that he was most proud of.
A voice like his only comes once in a century: