Paul Robeson was a pioneering black film actor in the 1930s, appearing in nine feature films and shattering the stereotypical portrayals of African Americans in the process. He also made his mark as a scholar, singer, linguist, athlete and author.
Yet despite international renown, for years Robeson was virtually written out of the American scene after his name turned up on the McCarthy-era blacklist as a Communist, a charge that was never borne out. He died in relative obscurity in 1976 at age 77.
Robeson's invisibility began to change last year with the 100th anniversary of his birth, which triggered a series of international film retrospectives and exhibitions celebrating his career and achievements. And on Wednesday, PBS' "American Masters" series joins in the tribute with the premiere of the first comprehensive portrait of the man: "Paul Robeson: Here I Stand." Made with the cooperation of his family, the documentary is an intimate look at Robeson's life, told through interviews with friends and family, personal papers, letters, private films, political documents and medical records.
"There are a lot of misconceptions about him," said his good friend Harry Belafonte, one of those whose memories of Robeson are included in the documentary. "I don't think most people know him unless they are 60 or 70 years old or beyond. Very few people have ever heard of Paul Robeson."
Problems surfaced when he publicly embraced the Russian people and their culture while fighting for racial equality at home. He was singled out and discredited for his political views; the persecution reached an apex in 1950, when his passport was revoked. He could no longer give concerts, make recordings, appear in the theater, perform on radio or travel abroad.
"He was truly a great man," said Susan Lacy, executive producer of "American Masters." "I think it's sort of a crime that people don't know who he is today, which is why I wanted to make the program."
"Hollywood didn't recognize his existence, still doesn't," said Paul Robeson Jr.
For Robeson's son, the documentary is long overdue, and he hopes it will open the way to wider exposure to his father's work. Network television still has never shown one of his father's films, the son said.
He said his father's blacklisting was more than politically motivated. "It was the power of the black male image that said 'freedom or death.' That is what threatened them then and frightens them now," he said.
In addition to roles in films like "Show Boat," in which he reprised his London stage role of riverboat worker Jim, and "Emperor Jones," in which he played a former porter who becomes king of a Caribbean country, Robeson was considered one of the world's top concert artists of the 1940s.
"He was a leading recording artist on both sides of the Atlantic. He was one of the world's great artists by any standards, but basically you wouldn't know that if you look at reference books," said Robeson Jr. "You look him up and it says, 'Paul Robeson: Communist and singer.' That it's."
Robeson actually never joined the Communist Party, believing, according to his son, that culture is above ideology. Lacy added that if Robeson hadn't pursued political causes, he would have had a life of "absolute" ease: "He would have become rich and idolized and lionized, a cuddly ambassador for goodwill. But he said, 'No. There's too much to fight for.' He paid a terrible price."
* "American Masters: Paul Robeson: Here I Stand" airs tonight at 9 on KCET-TV.