Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist


The Emperor Jones (1933)      Body and Soul (1925)       Borderline (1930)

Sanders of the River (1935)        Jericho (1937)         The Proud Valley (1940)

Native Land (1942)        Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)

 

All-American athlete, scholar, renowned baritone, stage actor, and social activist, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was a towering figure and a trailblazer many times over. He was perhaps most groundbreaking, however, in the medium of film. The son of an escaped slave, Robeson managed to become a top-billed movie star during the time of Jim Crow America, headlining everything from fellow pioneer Oscar Micheaux's silent drama Body and Soul to British studio showcases to socially engaged documentaries, always striving to project positive images of black characters. Increasingly politically minded, Robeson eventually left movies behind, using his international celebrity to speak for those denied their civil liberties around the world and ultimately becoming a victim of ideological persecution himself. But his film legacy lives on and continues to speak eloquently of the long and difficult journey of a courageous and outspoken African American.

ABOUT THE DVDs: Most notably NONE of these films are picture-boxed DVD transfers (see our description of 'picture-boxing' in our Kind Hearts and Coronets review). If this is an indication that Criterion's policy on this practice has altered - MANY fans will be very pleased.

Criterion's Paul Robeson package is very impressive - There are 4 dual-layered DVDs housed in their own digipack slipcase fitting snugly into a cardboard box (with a beautifully bound 78-page book). The films are arranged on the disc as follows:

Disc 1 ('Icon' - Spine 370) - has The Emperor Jones (1933) with commentary and Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)

Disc 2 ('Outsider' - Spine 371) - has Body and Soul (1925) with commentary and Borderline (1930)

Disc 3 ('Pioneer' - Spine 372) - Sanders of the River (1935) and Jericho (1937)

Disc 4  ('Citizen of the World' - Spine 373) - The Proud Valley (1940) and Native Land (1942)

The image looks acceptable but none have had a thorough restoration that I can easily determine - usually described as 'digital transfers created from the best surviving elements' on Criterion's website. They appear fairly impressive though considering (Emperor Jones looks very good!). Depending on the age of the film - deficiencies like contrast flickering and damage are prevalent to varyingly minor degrees. For the silent films - Body and Soul, Borderline - there are new scores which sound marvelous. My only substantial gripe is that Borderline is interlaced (I don't think this is a frame-rate issue, but most likely simply an oversight). Of the later films both Sanders of the River (1935) and Jericho (1937) are the most 'muddy' in appearance. Audio shows some moments of weakness although it is not fatal. My notes make no reference of dropouts or bothersome hiss/pops. Other than that this DVDs are all very watchable and all offer optional English subtitles.

The extras are fabulous and for many will outweigh the value of some of the films. Both commentaries are at Criterion's usual level - thorough, professional and imparting essential information. I got a lot out of Jeffrey C. Stewart's (on Emperor Jones) of the two but it is possible that it was because I was enjoying that film so much more. The Oscar winning short - Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist - narrated by Sidney Poitier (29:25) is magnificent as are all the other documentary video featurettes in the package. They include Our Paul: Remembering Paul Robeson has interviews with filmmaker William Greaves and actors Ruby Dee and James Earl Jones (19:05), Robeson on Robeson, shares an interview with Paul Robeson Jr. about his father's career and art (11:21). True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson is 33:25 and features interviews with Paul Robeson Jr. and film historians Stephen Bourne and Ian Christie. There are film clips from Song of Freedom (1936), King Solomon's Mines (1937), and Big Fella (1937). "The Story of Native Land," is 13:56 and has an interview with cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, son of Frontier Films cofounder and Native Land co director Leo Hurwitz. There is also a great 1958 Pacifica Radio interview with Paul Robeson which I thoroughly enjoyed listening to as much as the commentaries. Included is a 78 page book with many essays (likes of Charles Burnett, Ian Christie and Robeson himself) and photos - it is a wonderful adjunct to this impressive and important package.

Overall this is prime Criterion - one of the most educational packages I recall coming from them. Personally, I was quite ignorant about Paul Robeson before receiving this. Here is a man who stands as one of the great influential human beings of the 20th century - a towering example of someone who stuck to his ideals and made an impacting difference. This DVD set has value on so many levels - it is an easy recommendation - one that I make to all readers of this website.

 


Titles

 


 

The Emperor Jones
Stars Paul Robeson, Dudley Digges, Frank H. Wilson, Fredi Washington, Ruby Elzy
Directors: Dudley Murphy
Theatrical Release Date: September 29, 1933
Synopsis - At a Baptist prayer meeting, the preacher leads a prayer for Brutus Jones, who is leaving to become a railway porter. Jones joins the congregation in a spiritual. Once on the train, Jeff, a porter, shows Jones the ropes. Jones secretly takes up with Jeff's girl, Undine. He makes some money in a deal with a rich businessman on the train. Jones proves to be a cunning manipulator and a good liar. In a crap game, Jones stabs Jeff over a pair of loaded dice. Now doing hard labour, Jones kills a white prison guard and escapes. Shovelling coal on a ship in the Caribbean, Jones swims to an island. He is brought before the island's ruler, where Smithers, a crooked white trader, buys his freedom. Jones schemes his way into a partnership in Smithers' business, then finally control of the entire island through a touch of witchcraft, or so it seems. Brutus declares himself to be The Emperor Jones... Smithers reports on the unrest that Jones' rule is causing. One morning, the palace is empty of servants. As rebel drums beat, Jones flees into the forest where he is haunted by visions from his past...

Sanders of the River
Stars Leslie Banks, Paul Robeson, Nina Mae McKinney, Martin Walker, Robert Cochran
Directors: Zoltan Korda
Theatrical Release Date: June 26, 1935
Synopsis - British District Officer in Nigeria in the 1930's rules his area strictly but justly, and struggles with gun-runners and slavers with the aid of a loyal native chief.

Body and Soul
Stars Paul Robeson, Mercedes Gilbert, Julia Theresa Russell, Lawrence Chenault, Marshall Rogers
Directors: Oscar Micheaux
Theatrical Release Date: November 9, 1925
Synopsis - A minister is malevolent and sinister behind his righteous facade. He consorts with, and later extorts from, the owner of a gambling house, and betrays an honest girl, eventually driving them both to ruin.

Jericho
Stars Paul Robeson, Henry Wilcoxon, Wallace Ford, Kouka, John Laurie
Directors: Thornton Freeland
Theatrical Release Date: August 16, 1938
Plot Outline - American deserter joins African tribe to avoid punishment.

Borderline
Stars Paul Robeson, Eslanda Robeson, Hilda Doolittle, Gavin Arthur, Charlotte Arthur
Directors: Kenneth MacPherson
Synopsis - Adah, a black woman, has an affair with Thorne, a white man, much to the dismay of some of the prejudiced townsfolk and Thorne's wife, Astrid. Adah attempts a reconciliation with her man, Pete, but eventually leaves him and the town. Meanwhile, Astrid goes mad and cuts Thorne's face and arm with a knife, but then mysteriously dies. Thorne is tried but acquitted. Because of the events, the mayor sends Pete a letter asking him to leave town for the good of all concerned.

The Proud Valley
Stars Paul Robeson, Edward Chapman, Simon Lack, Rachel Thomas, Dilys Thomas
Directors: Pen Tennyson
Synopsis - In a Welsh coal mining valley, a young man with a beautiful singing voice is called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice when a pit disaster threatens.

Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist
Stars Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Margaret Webster
Directors: Saul J. Turell
Genres: Documentary, Short

Narrated by Sidney Poitier, which traces his career through his activism and his socially charged performances of his signature song, "Ol' Man River."

Posters

Theatrical Releases: Various from 1925 - 1942

  DVD Reviews

DVD Review: Criterion - Region 1 - NTSC

DVD Box Cover

Only available in the Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist:

Distribution Criterion Collection - Spine #370 - Region 1 - NTSC
Time: 1:16:09
Bitrate:
Audio English (original mono) 
Subtitles English, None
Features

Release Information:
Studio: Criterion

Aspect Ratio:
All Original Aspect Ratios - 1.33 

Edition Details:

• Audio commentary for The Emperor Jones by historian Jeffrey C. Stewart
• Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist - narrated by Sidney Poitier (29:25)

• Our Paul: Remembering Paul Robeson, a new video program including interviews with filmmaker William Greaves and actors Ruby Dee and James Earl Jones (19:05)
• Robeson on Robeson, a new interview with Paul Robeson Jr. about his father's career and art (11:21)


DVD Release Date: February 13th, 2007

4 3-tiered digipack slipcases inside a cardboard box
Chapters: various

 

 

Comments:

Of all Paul Robeson's eleven starring film performances, by far his most iconic was his breakthrough in the big-screen adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. He was already a legend for his stage incarnation of Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter who powers his way to rule of a Caribbean island, but with this, his first sound-era film role, his regal image was married to his booming voice for eternity. With The Emperor Jones, Robeson became the first African-American leading man in mainstream movies and, he said, gained a deeper understanding of cinema's potential to change racial misconceptions. Previously censored, The Emperor Jones is presented here in its most complete form. Also included is Saul J. Turell's Academy Award-winning documentary short Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist, narrated by Sidney Poitier, which traces his career through his activism and his socially charged performances of his signature song, "Ol' Man River."



DVD Menus



 

Screen Captures

 

 

 

 


DVD Review: Criterion - Region 1 - NTSC

DVD Box Cover

Only available in the Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist:

Distribution Criterion Collection - Spine #371 - Region 1 - NTSC
Time: 1:19:21 + 1:15:12
Bitrate:
Audio Silent - new scores
Subtitles English, None
Features Release Information:
Studio: Criterion

Aspect Ratio:
All Original Aspect Ratios - 1.33 

Edition Details:

• Audio commentary for Body and Soul by Oscar Micheaux historian Pearl Bowser
• Musical scores by jazz recording artists and composers Wycliffe Gordon (Body and Soul) and Courtney Pine (Borderline)


DVD Release Date: February 13th, 2007

4 3-tiered digipack slipcases inside a cardboard box
Chapters: various

 

 

Comments:

Although the 1920s brought him acclaim as a stage actor and singer, Paul Robeson still had to prove himself as a viable screen performer. Mainstream avenues were limited, however, and his first two films, both silent, were made on the peripheries of the film business. Body and Soul (1925), directed by the legendary African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, is a direct critique of the power of the cloth, casting Robeson in dual roles as a jackleg preacher and a well-meaning inventor. Borderline (1930), the sole feature of British film theorist Kenneth Macpherson, boldly blends Eisensteinian montage and domestic melodrama, and features Robeson and his wife, Eslanda, as lovers caught up in a tangled web of interracial affairs. With these first independent works, Robeson revealed his stunning and expressive on-screen physical presence and laid the groundwork for what would become a history-making career.



DVD Menus



 

Screen Captures - Body and Soul

 

 

 

 


 

Screen Captures - Borderline

 

 

 

 

 


DVD Review: Criterion - Region 1 - NTSC

DVD Box Cover

Only available in the Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist:

Distribution Criterion Collection - Spine #372 - Region 1 - NTSC
Time: 1:27:42 + 1:15:03
Bitrate:
Audio English (original mono) 
Subtitles English, None
Features Release Information:
Studio: Criterion

Aspect Ratio:
All Original Aspect Ratios - 1.33 

Edition Details:

• True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson, a new video program featuring interviews with Paul Robeson Jr. and film historians Stephen Bourne and Ian Christie, and including film clips from Song of Freedom (1936), King Solomon's Mines (1937), and Big Fella (1937) - (33:25)


DVD Release Date: February 13th, 2007

4 3-tiered digipack slipcases inside a cardboard box
Chapters: various

 

 

Comments:

Seeking out new avenues for his artistry, Paul Robeson moved his family to London in 1928. During the next twelve years, he headlined six British films, pioneering uncharted territory for black actors and reaching a level of prominence unthinkable in Hollywood. Robeson's first British production, Zoltán Korda's Sanders of the River (1935), however, ended up being an embarrassment for the actor, its story of an African tribal leader transformed into a celebration of the British Empire. As a result, Robeson sought more artistic control, eventually achieving it with Jericho (1937), which features Robeson in what turned out to be his most satisfying film role, as a World War I officer who escapes his fate as a black man by fleeing to Africa and creating a new world for himself.



DVD Menus



 

Screen Captures - Sanders of the River

 

 

 

 


Screen Captures - Jericho

 

 

 

 


DVD Review: Criterion - Region 1 - NTSC

DVD Box Cover

Only available in the Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist:

Distribution Criterion Collection - Spine #373 - Region 1 - NTSC
Time: 1:20:21 + 1:17:15
Bitrate:
Audio English (original mono) 
Subtitles English, None
Features Release Information:
Studio: Criterion

Aspect Ratio:
All Original Aspect Ratios - 1.33 

Edition Details:

• "The Story of Native Land," a new video interview with cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, son of Frontier Films cofounder and Native Land codirector Leo Hurwitz (13:56)
• 1958 Pacifica Radio interview with Paul Robeson (Courtesy of Pacifica Radio Archives)


DVD Release Date: February 13th, 2007

4 3-tiered digipack slipcases inside a cardboard box
Chapters: various

 

 

Comments:

By the start of World War II, Paul Robeson had given up his lucrative mainstream work to participate in more socially progressive film and stage productions. As David Goliath, in the popular British drama The Proud Valley (1940), Robeson is the quintessential everyman, an American sailor who joins rank-and-file Welsh miners organizing against the powers that be. Concurrently, Robeson committed his support to Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz's political semidocumentary Native Land (1942). With Robeson's narration and songs, this beautifully shot and edited film exposes violations of Americans' civil liberties and is a call to action for exploited workers around the country. Scarcely shown since its debut, Native Land represents Robeson's shift from narrative cinema to the leftist documentaries that would define the final chapter of his controversial film career.



DVD Menus



 

Screen Captures - The Proud Valley

 

 

 

 


 

Screen Captures - Native Land

 

 

 

 


DVD Box Cover

   

CLICK to order from:

Distribution Criterion Collection - Spine # 369  - Region 1 - NTSC




 

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