Director Steve McQueen, who is behind 12 Years a Slave, is collaborating with actor/singer Harry Belafonte for his next project. The Oscar-winning director has chosen the compelling story of Black actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson. McQueen regards the upcoming film as his “dream project.”
Last year at the Hidden Heroes event in New York, McQueen announced his selection of Robeson as a cinematic subject and said, “His life and legacy was the film I wanted to make the second after Hunger. But I didn’t have the power; I didn’t have the juice.” Hunger was McQueen’s first movie as a director; the story followed the IRA hunger strike led by Bobby Sands.
Robeson’s legacy is certainly one of success, failure and perseverance. The son of an escaped enslaved African-turned-minister, Robeson dabbled in performing arts while still in high school. He acted in plays, sang in the chorus and was an amazing athlete in football, basketball, baseball and track. Before he even graduated from high school, Robeson earned a statewide academic scholarship to Rutgers College.
His athletic, academic and artistic talent made him popular among those who knew him. He graduated as valedictorian from Rutgers, and during his valedictory speech asked his fellow classmates to campaign for equality for all Americans. After Rutgers, the young Robeson went on to graduate from Columbia Law School.
Abandoning his pursuit of a legal career after experiencing harsh racism at work, Robeson decided to pursue an entertainment career that would bring him international fame. He was best known for his performance in Othello and his singing of Ol’ Man River.
Born in London, McQueen, who is of Grenadian descent, discovered Robeson’s story when he was just a teenager. He read stories about the activist supporting miners in Wales. A neighbor used to give books and articles to the young McQueen, and one day placed a news clip about Robeson in his parents’ mailbox.
“It was about this Black guy who was in Wales and was singing with these miners,” McQueen recalled, “I was about 14 years old, and not knowing who Paul Robeson was, this Black American in Wales, it seemed strange. So then, of course, I just found out that this man was an incredible human being.”
Robeson campaigned against racism and social injustice, performing to loyalist soldiers in the Spanish Civil War, at anti-Nazi demonstrations and in South Wales after a delegation of unemployed miners walked to London to meet Robeson. His political association brought him to the attention of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, leading to revocation of his passport for eight years despite his contributions to the Allied forces during World War II.
During McCarthy’s era, Robeson was denounced as a communist, blacklisted from film studios and concert venues and denied a passport to travel. Though it was reinstated in 1958, the damage to his career and mental stability withstood.
Four Stars International has been attempting in recent years to greenlight a Robeson biopic. Actor and director Vondie Curtis-Hall and South African director Darrell Roodt will helm the movie.
McQueen has made Robeson the subject of an earlier project known as End Credits. The camera scrolled the FBI’s documentation and persecution of the politically charged actor while a narrator read the excerpts.
As for his work with Belafonte, the two have become fast friends on their journey to release the Robeson biopic.
“I never thought I’d make a new friend, and a man who is 87 years old, but I’m very happy. He’s a beautiful man.”
Belafonte also spoke fondly of his relationship with McQueen saying, “I am so honored and so rewarded that I should have lived long enough to see the emergence of a young man in the world of culture who delivered to us one of the quintessential works of art in film.”
No word yet on who will portray Robeson or what Belafonte’s exact role in the film will entail or when the project would be released.
“We’re very fortunate that we’re on a roll together to make this dream a reality. Miracles do happen. With Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte, things have come full circle,” McQueen said.