Paul Robeson: THE TRAILBLAZER

Paul Robeson was the son of a former slave whose life was marked by tragedy, triumph and tribulation. Now a new biopic by Steve McQueen aims to restore his prominence in social and political folklore.

“The best-known American in the world”, was how Paul Robeson was described without irony or argument by a journalist in 1964. Yet today, among the Instagram generation, his name is mostly forgotten. That is set to change, as the Academy Award-winning director Steve McQueen has announced plans to bring Robeson’s story to the screen. It is perhaps fitting that cinema, a medium in which Robeson excelled, will restore his renown as a cultural monolith and social justice campaigner.

Paul Leroy Robeson was born in April 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey — a town known more for its redbrick university than the realities of its stark income divide. His father, William Drew Robeson, was an escaped slave who became a Presbyterian minister, while his mother, Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, was a Quaker schoolteacher, originally from Philadelphia. But childhood happiness quickly faded: when Robeson was six, his mother’s dress caught fire and she died. The childhood loss left him bereft and perhaps forever seeking female warmth.

Contributor

Bridget Arsenault

Published

June 2020

Tags

Also read