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A Must See

Steve McQueen to Direct Film About Legendary Paul Robeson

Throughout history, there have been few entertainers as passionate and outspoken about social and racial injustice than legendary actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson. Fewer still are those whose beliefs and work became the subject of a sustained witch hunt by U.S. officials that led to the revocation of his passport. Now, Robeson’s life is the subject of an upcoming film by “12 Years a Slave” director, Steve McQueen.

McQueen described working on the Robeson project as a dream come true. He first discovered Robeson as a teenager when a neighbor gave him books and articles that he felt the young McQueen would find interesting. One of these articles was about Robeson.

“His life and legacy was the film I wanted to make the second after Hunger. But I didn’t have the power, I didn’t have the juice” McQueen said at the Hidden Heroes awards in New York last November.

With a Best Picture Oscar win for “12 Years a Slave” under his belt, McQueen now has the “juice” he needs. And, as booster shot, he will team with legendary singer, actor, civil rights activist and Robeson friend Harry Belafonte, in an undisclosed capacity, to develop the film.

Belafonte, who regarded Robeson as a role model as well as a friend, once said about the extraordinary entertainer, “…it was from Paul that I learned that the purpose of art is not just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be. And that if art were put into the service of the human family, it could only enhance their betterment.”

Robeson, the son of an escaped slave, was also an exceptional athlete, cultural scholar, and author. He won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University and, despite violence and racism from teammates, won 15 varsity letters in baseball, basketball, and track and was twice named to the All-American Football Team. He also was a graduate of Columbia Law School but gave up his legal career for acting and singing after experiencing racism at work.

Robeson was one of the first Black men to play serious roles in the primarily white American theatre. In the mid-1920s, he played the lead in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones. Throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, he was a widely acclaimed actor and singer. With songs such as his trademark “Ol’ Man River,” he became one of the most popular concert singers of his time. He was, perhaps, best known in theatre for his starring role in Othello, which was the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway history, running for nearly three hundred performances.

Robeson was not only a star in the U.S., but was revered internationally. He spoke 15 languages, and performed benefits throughout the world for various social justice causes. He believed that the famous have a responsibility to fight for justice and peace. In the late 1940s, Robeson openly questioned why African Americans should fight in the army of a government that tolerated racism.

Unfortunately, his outspokenness and campaigns against racism and social injustice led to the House Un-American Activities Committee, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, accusing him of being a communist. Once he was labeled a communist, Robeson was blacklisted from film studios and concert venues, and his passport was revoked. Though it was reinstated in 1958, his career never recovered. Paul Robeson retired from public life in 1963. He died in 1976, at age 77, in Philadelphia.

To date, there have been no details on the filming schedule or release date for McQueen’s film. However, the world is waiting for the remarkable story of an extraordinary man to be told.

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