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.
Paul Robeson (Photo by Edward Gooch Collection/Getty Images)

“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.


June 2020


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