Paul Robeson was born in 1898 in New Jersey. He became an actor, singer, activist and athlete, and was one of the very few prominent black actors to appear in British interwar films. Robeson lived with his wife in London between 1928 and 1939, during which period he studied Swahili and phonetics at SOAS, University of London. In London he appeared on the West End stage as Othello (1930) – the first black man to play the role on the West End stage in a hundred years.
Robeson was a popular actor and singer, and a well-known figure in London society. When, in 1929, he and his wife were denied entry to the Savoy grill room due to their skin colour, the matter was reported in the national press. The Savoy, however, flat-out refused to admit that it operated a colour bar and provided no explanation why the Robeson’s were refused entry.
On British film sets, Robeson also encountered racial prejudices. After appearing alongside his wife Eslanda in the art-house Borderline (1930), Robeson’s first commercial role in British film was 1935’s Sanders of the Rivers, directed by Zoltan Korda. The film was based on a selection of short stories by Edgar Wallace, published in 1911. The Edwardian context in which the source material was written was scarcely updated for the film. Sanders, played by Leslie Banks, is a colonial administrator in Nigeria. He is presented as firm but just, and has a paternalistic attitude towards the tribes which live in ‘his’ part of the Empire. Robeson plays Bosambo, a trusted native who provides Sanders with intelligence. When warring breaks out between the tribes, Basambo helps Sanders restore the peace.
Significant parts of the film were shot on location, which the marketing material claimed lent an air of authenticity to the plot. However, as one viewer has commented, the film appears to have been shot in East Africa rather than Nigeria or elsewhere in West Africa – to the untrained, white, British viewer these two disparate regions apparently looked the same. The film features several African tribes in crowd scenes and performing rituals. Rather than providing an ethnographic account of indigenous culture, these scenes show ‘wild’ Africa as the white colonial gaze imagined it to be.
Robeson distanced himself from the film after it appeared, on the grounds of its sympathetic portrayal of colonialism. Yet he continued to find himself in the bind that the only roles offered to him as a black man were those which also included racist or patronising depictions of African culture. In his next British film, Song of Freedom (1936), Robeson plays a dock worker, Johnny Zinga, who has a powerful voice. This film, at least, allows Robeson to show off his considerable singing talent.
Johnny is catapulted to fame after he is heard singing in his local pub, in the predictable ‘rags to riches’ success story that so many British films of the period included. But Johnny does not simply get famous: he is also discovered to be the rightful king to an African island. Johnny travels to the island and tries to rule it as best as he can, but eventually decides to return home to his old life in the London docks. Life on the (fictitious) African island is depicted as primitive, with Robeson once more asked to don ‘traditional’ native dress for these scenes. It was no doubt titillating to white audiences to see the chest of the 6”3’ Robeson on display for their consumption. Additionally, the suggestion that the one black dockworker in London is also a member of a royal family further undermines the perceived differences between African culture, with its supposed multitude of royal families, and the British Empire, over which one monarch reigns supreme.
The following year, Robeson was once again cast in an adaptation of a popular fiction, this time the Victorian novel King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. The novel appeared in 1886 and was one of the first British novels to be set in Africa. In the film, explorer and adventurist Allan Quartermain agrees to help a young Irish woman whose father has gone off into the African wilderness to find the fabled King Solomon’s diamond mines. Robeson plays Umbopa, a native guide to the party.
When Quartermain, Umbopa and the others get captured by a native tribe ruled by the despotic Twala and the witch-doctor Gagool, Umbopa reveals that he is in fact the legitimate heir to the tribe’s throne. Eventually, Quartermain and Umbopa manage to persuade the tribe to overthrow Twala and the party find the entrance to King’s Solomon’s mine, which turns out to exist. They find the missing father inside the mine and manage to escape before the mine is destroyed.
The portrayal of the native tribe in King Solomon’s Mines leans heavily on depictions of mystical rituals and supposed witchcraft. At the same time, their leader is styled a ‘king’ and the title appears hereditary in the manner of European monarchies. Umbopa is, in contrast, calm, educated and righteous. He is, however, treated as exceptional among his peers, a fact further underlined by his royal heritage. The overall depiction of indigenous African tribes in the film leans heavily on stereotypes of barbarianism and primitivism.
Robeson returned to the US at the outbreak of World War Two. His increasingly radical left-wing political views put him under government scrutiny, and he was denied a passport for several years, effectively trapping him in the US. Although he continued to record songs, Robeson stopped acting after 1942. Although he was a high-profile star during the 1930s, the racism pervasive in British society pigeonholed him into roles where he had to repeatedly act out white fantasies of indigenous cultures; and play characters who unquestioningly submitted to white colonial rule.