Robeson's legacy, on stage and off

Review: `American Masters' has produced a masterful biography of the performer and political activist.

February 24, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

In a month marked by an unusual number of outstanding documentaries on aspects of African-American history, PBS' "Paul Robeson: Here I Stand" seems like a near-perfect grand finale.

The "American Masters" documentary tells the story of a brilliant and horribly persecuted black man who comes closer, perhaps, than any other American of the century to fulfilling the definition of Renaissance Man.

This is, as PBS claims, the first definitive biography of Robeson, and more's the shame on us as a culture that it took this long. But better late than never, and never was a real possibility with a government and mainstream press conspiring to all but wipe Robeson from the pages of history in the 1950s and '60s.

Robeson's journey is one of those stories that illuminates great and troubling truths about this country. Maybe the best measure of how successful PBS is in its telling of the tale is that, like the man, it demands a strong response. This is television with the capacity to rattle your ideological cage, to make you rethink some of your politics and, perhaps, even reassess a few of the heroes you were taught to love over the years.

Paul Leroy Robeson was born in 1898 in Princeton, N.J., the son of a distinguished minister whose congregation was primarily black but whose church was funded and operated by whites. Robeson's father hoped that his exemplary leadership at the church would persuade officials at nearby Princeton University to allow his son to be the first African-American student admitted, but he was wrong. It was Paul Robeson's first hard lesson in race and class politics.

In 1915, Paul was allowed to enroll at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, one of two African-Americans to do so. In "Here I Stand," viewers will hear him tell a story about the white players brutalizing Robeson when he went out for football and how he responded. The story takes less than a minute to tell, but it resonates across the entire two hours of film.

Before graduating in 1918, Robeson won 15 varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball and track. He also made All-American in football twice and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. As for Renaissance man, in 1921, he made his acting debut in Harlem. In 1922, he played for the Akron Indians in the National Football League championship game. In 1923, he graduated from Columbia Law School with honors. Two years later, he made his concert debut as a singer. By 1929, he was appearing at Carnegie Hall. The 1920s, '30s and most of the '40s were mainly years of triumph here and abroad for Robeson -- Hollywood movies like "Showboat," London stage performances of "Othello," sold-out concert tours in Russia.

Robeson's love of the Soviet Union -- what he saw as its relative lack of racism and his belief in socialist ideals -- was fine with everyone while Russia was an ally during World War II. But once the war ended and Russia was redefined as our bitter ideological enemy, Robeson's troubles started.

As American politics entered one of its ugliest and most frightening periods, starting in 1948 with an out-of-control House Un-American Activities Committee and the rise of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, reactionary forces of racism and repression were gathering to smash Robeson.

"Here I Stand" chronicles much of the ugliness -- from the State Department, in a move that would ultimately be reversed by the Supreme Court, taking away Robeson's passport for eight years, to baseball great Jackie Robinson and singer Josh White betraying him under fierce pressure from the FBI and other government agencies. You wonder how he went on, denied the capacity to earn an income for almost a decade.

You might also wonder where the mainstream press and such so-called champions of decency as Harry Truman were during these years. The mainstream press barely reported a riot at Peekskill, N.Y., in 1949, in which veterans' groups used violence to keep Robeson from performing.

With someone as victimized as Robeson, the tendency is to want only to sing his praises. But that is the great thing about "American Masters" biographies: They respect our intelligence enough to give us the bad as well as the good and show us real human beings.

"Here I Stand" gives full vent to one of Robeson's great sins: His refusal to tell the world what he knew first-hand about Stalin's systematic purge of Jewish intellectuals. His son, Paul, whose papers and memories are crucial to making this film so praiseworthy, defends his father's choice. But the defense is balanced by the facts presented in the film and those who denounce Robeson for his repeated public denials of the purge.

This is the way biography should be presented but rarely is on television. "Here I Stand" stands head and shoulders above the crowd of TV biographies. "American Masters" has mastered the form and continues to muster the courage to give us a true picture of ourselves through representative Americans.

'About Paul Robeson'

Before you see the PBS documentary on Paul Robeson tonight, learn more about him today during a program at Coppin State College, sponsored by the Black/Jewish Forum of Baltimore.

What: "An Examination of Paul Robeson's Artistic, Political and Social Contributions," with speaker John L. Hudgins, chair of Coppin State's Department of Social Services; plus performances by vocalist and poet Minnie I. Carter and students from Rosemont Elementary School

When: Program at 1 p.m., preceded by bag lunch at noon

Where: Parlett L. Moore Library, Coppin State College, 2500 W. North Ave. (lunch in Parren J. Mitchell Room; program in Cab Calloway Room, which also holds exhibit Paul Robeson: Voice of the Ages') Admission: Free

Call: 410-383-5869

`Paul Robeson: Here I Stand'

When: 9 to 11 tonight

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) Pub Date: 2/24/99

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