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Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist (The Criterion Collection)

4.3 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

All-American athlete, scholar, renowned baritone, stage actor, and social activist, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was a towering figure and a trailblazer many times over. He made perhaps his biggest impact, however, in the medium of film. The son of an escaped slave, Robeson managed to become a top-billed movie star around the world during the time of Jim Crow America, always striving to use film to educate viewers about equality, democracy, and the rights of workers. Though he eventually left movies behind, using his international celebrity to speak on behalf of those denied their civil liberties and ultimately becoming a victim of ideological persecution himself, Robeson left a film legacy that continues to speak eloquently of the long and difficult journey of a courageous and outspoken African American. DISC ONE - ICON: The Emperor Jones (1933), Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979) DISC TWO - OUTSIDER: Body and Soul (1925), Borderline (1930) DISC THREE - PIONEER: Sanders of the River (1935), Jericho (1937) DISC FOUR - CITIZEN OF THE WORLD: The Proud Valley (1940), Native Land (1942) (Image Entertainment)

Paul Robeson is today known for little more than singing "Ol' Man River" in Showboat, but this hefty and potent collection from Criterion (seven movies and a rich trove of documentary features and commentaries) should return Robeson to much-deserved cultural awareness. An imposing, charismatic black actor who demanded respect when most black actors were trapped in mammy and minstrel roles, and a singer whose deep, rolling voice won him acclaim on the concert stages of Europe, Robeson was among the most significant performers of the 20th Century--until the 1950s, when the U.S. government suspended his passport out of fear that Robeson's commitment to social progress and civil rights would project a negative view of America. But even before then, Robeson's career took place outside of the establishment channels of Hollywood. Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist includes two silent films (Body and Soul, a melodrama railing against the hypocrisies of the church, made by the pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux; and Borderline, a startlingly inventive story of an interracial love rectangle, made by film theorist Kenneth Macpherson), both given additional vitality by contemporary jazz scores; three movies from Robeson's rich period in England (Sanders of the Valley, Jericho, and The Proud Valley, which chart both Robeson's rising social conscience and his increasing clout in the industry); Robeson's most significant Hollywood film, The Emperor Jones, adapted from the Eugene O'Neill play that shot Robeson to stardom in the first place; and the movie that probably reflected Robeson's social beliefs more than any, the remarkable and riveting semi-documentary Native Land, which Robeson narrated.

Robeson is one of those rare actors, like Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart, whose performances drive his movies as much as the director or the screenplay. Much is made of Robeson's powerful voice and intimidating physique, but just as impressive are his piercing eyes; in every role, a questing intelligence bursts through, looking at the world and cutting through charades and illusions. Criterion packages always have phenomenal extras, but Portraits of the Artist is unusually complex because Robeson's life is as important to his stature as his movies. These excellent features capture the world around Robeson, a world that both raised him up and tore him down. Far from a musty historical document, this is a film package that matters, which will reward and surprise viewers used to conventional notions of Hollywood and America. --Bret Fetzer

Special Features

  • Special Edition Four-Disc Box Set Features
  • New digital transfers of eight classic films: The Emperor Jones (Dudley Murphy, 1933), Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (Saul J. Turell, 1979), Body and Soul (Oscar Micheaux, 1925), Borderline (Kenneth Macpherson, 1930), Sanders of the River (Zoltan Korda, 1935), Jericho (Thornton Freeland, 1937), The Proud Valley (Pen Tennyson, 1940), Native Land (Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand
  • Commentaries on Body and Soul and The Emperor Jones
  • Musical scores by Wycliffe Gordon (Body and Soul) and Courtney Pine (Borderline)
  • 1958 Pacifica Radio interview with Paul Robeson
  • Four video programs featuring interviews with actors Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, filmmaker William Greaves, cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, Paul Robeson Jr., and others
  • Booklet featuring new essays by Clement Price, Hilton Als, Charles Burnett, and Ian Christie, a tribute from Pete Seeger, an excerpt from Paul Robeson's autobiography Here I Stand, and more

Product Details

  • Actors: Paul Robeson, Edward Chapman, Leslie Banks, Simon Lack, Rachel Thomas
  • Directors: Dudley Murphy, Kenneth MacPherson, Oscar Micheaux, Pen Tennyson, Saul J. Turell
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Box set, Black & White, Closed-captioned, Dolby, NTSC
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 1.0)
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 4
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: Criterion
  • DVD Release Date: February 13, 2007
  • Run Time: 586 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #99,017 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist (The Criterion Collection)" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: DVD Verified Purchase
This Release of Paul Robeson films is a great release from Criterion. Released for Black History Month, this set includes 7 feature films and two documentaries.

Each disc contains two fims and select special features

"The Emperor Jones" is about a black man who escapes from a chain gang and flees to the West Indies.

"Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist" is a biographial documentary about Robeson narrated by Sidney Poiteir.

"Body and Soul" is about a corrupt preacher.

"Borderline" is about a group of interracial lovers

"Sanders of the River" is about an African tibesman

"Jericho" is about a black World War I soldier who deserts and heads to Africa,

"The Proud Valley" is about a coal miner in Wales

"Native Land" is socialist documentary film about labor unions.

Disc one contains commentary for "The Emperor Jones" by historian Jeffrey C. Stewart, "Our Paul: Remembering Paul Robeson" a retrospective containing interviews various black filmmakers and performers including James Earl Jones, and an interview with Robeson's son, Paul Robeson Jr.

Disc two contains commentary for "Body and Soul" by Micheaux historian Pearl Bowser. Also included are new scores for both films on the disc

Disc three contains "True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson" a progarm featuring interviews with Robeson Jr. and other persons

Disc four contains "The Story of Native Land," an interview with cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, and a1958 radio interview with Paul Robeson.

Also included is a booklet with various other materials
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Semi-terse comments on this box set:

Here is a set that is more historically important than aesthetically interesting or artistically elegant (with the exception of Borderline). It is nice to see Criterion put out a set (like the Monsters and Madmen collection) that is not director focused. Paul Robeson is such a captivating character that he (usually) rises above the flawed material he is in. It is interesting how music made way into most of his films even when it seemed out of context of the movie. His philosophy of getting early roles for Black work fell way to good roles for African American or nothing at all which is why he stopped acting in the early 40s.

The Emperor Jones (1933): A strong characterization from Robeson (reprising his stage role from Eugene O'Neill's play) as a power hungry and conniving Pullman porter who eventually becomes emperor of a Caribbean island. Dated and a lot of racist language that has been cut out for past edits of the film, but the movie is still interesting to watch. The first two-thirds of the film are so strongly presented by Robeson that his eventual collapse seems unconvincing. Jones is a good early example of an anti-hero. One scene with a lover of Jones refuses the money he gives her after breaking up, but she eventually picks it up reminds me of the similar scene in Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing". Excellent commentary by Jeffrey C. Stewart, Professor of History and Art History at George Mason University and author of Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen, who discusses the context, mise en scenes, actors and comparisons to the stage play. He does not discuss too many biographical details of Robeson though.
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Paul Robeson's name can be found in many places in this space for his extraordinary (untutored) vocal talents singing songs of freedom, of the struggle for human dignity and for artistic effect (Emperor Jones, etc.). The most famous, or from a leftist perspective, infamous use of that instrument was the Peekskill (New York) concert of 1949 where he, his fellow progressives, including Communist Party members and sympathizers, literally had to fight off the fascistic locals in the throes of the post-World War II Cold War "red scare" that dominated my childhood and many others from my generation of '68.

But that skill hardly ends the list of talents that Paul Robeson used in his life: scholar, All-American football player (at one point denied that honor because of his politics), folklorist, actor, and, most importantly, political activist round out the main features. This Criterion Collection series of four discs concentrates on his film career (and other short biographic and memory pieces) especially the early work where he had to play groveling, simple-minded blacks and did so against type (his ever present black and proud type). I will give a short summary below to show the range of his work, although his real role as Shakespeare's Othello, done on the stage, is by all accounts, his definitive work, as is, to my mind Emperor Jones for his film work.

That said, Paul Robeson, and I were political opponents on the left.
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