Paul Robeson's name can be found in many places in this space for his extraordinary (untutored) vocal talents singing songs of freedom, of the struggle for human dignity and for artistic effect (Emperor Jones, etc.). The most famous, or from a leftist perspective, infamous use of that instrument was the Peekskill (New York) concert of 1949 where he, his fellow progressives, including Communist Party members and sympathizers, literally had to fight off the fascistic locals in the throes of the post-World War II Cold War "red scare" that dominated my childhood and many others from my generation of '68.
But that skill hardly ends the list of talents that Paul Robeson used in his life: scholar, All-American football player (at one point denied that honor because of his politics), folklorist, actor, and, most importantly, political activist round out the main features. This Criterion Collection series of four discs concentrates on his film career (and other short biographic and memory pieces) especially the early work where he had to play groveling, simple-minded blacks and did so against type (his ever present black and proud type). I will give a short summary below to show the range of his work, although his real role as Shakespeare's Othello, done on the stage, is by all accounts, his definitive work, as is, to my mind Emperor Jones for his film work.
That said, Paul Robeson, and I were political opponents on the left. Whether he was a member or just a sympathizer of the Stalinized Communist Party (or to use a quaint work form the old Cold War days, fellow-traveler) he nevertheless, if one looks closely at his speeches and comments stayed very close to the American Communist Party "party line" of the times (whatever that was, or rather whatever Moscow called for), including the ritualistic denunciation of Trotskyites as counter-revolutionaries, etc. He, however, was an eloquent spokesman for blacks here in America and internationally, a speaker against the Cold War madness, and a fighter for national liberation and anti-colonial struggles a kindred spirit. Moreover, unlike others, including poet Langston Hughes and novelist Richard Wright no "turncoat" and held his ground despite its effect on his career, his ability to earn a living, and his ability to leave America. Thus, he, along with the anarchist Emma Goldman, is one of those contradictory political characters from the past that I have a "soft" spot for. Paul Robeson's voice and presence, in any case, with this comprehensive retrospective (and others) will always be there. I wish, wish like hell, he could have been with us when the deal went down and communists had to choose between Stalinism and Trotskyism.
Emperor Jones, a classic Robeson performance is the main feature of the first disc. It is almost painful to watch this brilliant Eugene O'Neill play brought to the screen in 1933 for its language (the `n' word), it depiction of blacks, in the cities and the jungle as servile or loony, and merely the white man's fodder and for its primitive cinematic effects. But Paul Robeson IS Emperor Jones. No amount of fool talk, bad dialogue, didactic scripting can take away the power of his performance, foolishly tempting the fates, and the white man, or not. This is a powerful black man, period. His singing, especially of Water Boy, of course, needs no comment from me.
The other part of this disc is a sequence short piece on his life and times, as well as the effect hat he had on then up-and-coming young black actors and singers like James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee. This is a good short biographic sketch, although I find it hard to believe that throughout the various comments the fact of his association with the American Communist Party is no mentioned by anyone or I did not hear it mentioned by the narrator once. Robeson is characterized as merely a black social activist. This is a disservice to his memory, and a form of historical distortion that I have found elsewhere (notably in a Howard Zinn tribute documentary done by Matt Damon).The American Communist Party, our left-wing political enemy or not, was part of the working class movement in this country, at some points an important part, and to deny that is to deny our left-wing history. No, this falsification by omission will not do.