To put it simply: Paul Robeson, a true Renaissance man (lawyer/singer/athlete/activist/etc.) was one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century. In this "$ 500,000" epic from 1936, he's an opera singer searching for his heritage in Africa.
dir. J. Elder Wills (1936)
It's shocking, really, that there hasn't been a biopic of the legendary Paul Robeson as of yet. (According to IMDB, Oren Moverman, the Oscar-nominated writer/director of The Messenger, has worked on a script about the relationship between Robeson and Albert Einstein for Danny Glover.) Much, much more than "the guy who sings "Ol' Man River" in Showboat," Robeson was a towering American figure and one of the few people who can accurately be called a Renaissance man.
To sum it up: before he gained international fame as an opera singer and actor, he had excelled in school and sports, both college valdevictorian and All American football player. (He also excelled at baseball, basketball, and track and field.) He got his law degree from Columbia and played professional football. Staggering accomplishments for anybody, and simply mindblowing when you realize that he did this all while facing the difficulties and racism of life in America as a Black man in the early 1900s. As an entertainer, he broke down barriers, playing Othello on Broadway and playing an active role in a film career that was notable for dignified roles that never slipped into stereotypes. He was an activist who spoke out against racism in the world and the film industry. It's a tragedy that his vocal support of socialism led to the U.S. government taking away his passport, putting him under survailance from the FBI and CIA (he has one of the largest FBI files for an entertainer), and targeting his livelihood during the McCarthy era. He's not as known as he should be, and a big part of that resulted from the shameful behavior of the government.
In what's a nice surprise, several of his films are currently available on Hulu. The Emperor Jones, an adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill play, was a signature role for Robeson, who also played it on stage. Song of Freedom, although it's certainly dated and a record of its time, is another interesting work for a couple of reasons. Robeson went over to London in the mid-1930s to make three films in England where he had final cut. In Freedom, he plays a London dockworker who finds fame as an opera singer, and who then travels back to an island in Africa where his relatives originated. As you would expect, Robeson clashes with the island's outdated witch doctor stereotypes. What makes the film notable is the fact that his character remains dignified and his fascination with and love for his African roots are honored and celebrated, and they're never denigrated. Dignity is in short supply these days, and anyone could learn from Robeson's example.
Watch the film now for free on Hulu: