Paul Von Blum: Paul Robeson’s Ambiguous Film Legacy


Paul Robeson’s Ambiguous Film Legacy


Paul Von Blum


Paul Robeson was one of the greatest Renaissance persons in American history. He had a spectacular three-part artistic career, consisting of acting on the stage and in film and singing in concerts and in the recording studio. He was one of the first African American male film stars, but his overall legacy, even though generally positive, was ultimately ambiguous. He blazed the trail for many black actors to follow and he helped many blacks to obtain roles in both American and English films. At times, his roles reflected visions of strong and powerful black men; at other times, his roles reflected typical racial stereotypes that reinforced pervasive racist attitudes and behaviors in the U.S. and Europe. The article examines several of Robeson’s films, including Body and Soul, The Emperor Jones, Sanders of the River, Jericho, Show Boat, Song of Freedom,Big Fella, Proud Valley, Tales of Manhattan, and Native Land, to reveal how his roles both advanced and hindered black dignity in film depictions.


Paul Robeson, film industry, stereotypes, racism, visual popular culture


Moravian Journal of Literature and Film 5, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 13–22. ISSN 1803-7720.


Paul Von Blum
Department of African American Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
160 Haines Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095

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