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Steve McQueen directing a Paul Robeson biopic

After the success of 12 Years A Slave, anticipation has naturally been high for director Steve McQueen’s next project. And now, after announcing several television endeavors, it seems the British filmmaker has finally settled on a subject for his next feature, a topic that has fascinated him since childhood: the life of actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson.

According to The Guardian, McQueen initially wanted to work on this story as the follow-up to his debut film, Hunger. But as McQueen explains, “I didn’t have the power, I didn’t have the juice.” With a Best Picture Oscar now under his belt, he finally has the resources to tackle Robeson’s story, and he’ll be doing so with the help of singer and activist Harry Belafonte (aka the “King of Calypso”), who considered Robeson a close friend and mentor.

Perhaps best known for his iconic performance of “Ol’ Man River” in 1936’s Show Boat, Paul Robeson was a bit of a Renaissance man. Born in 1898, the son of an escaped slave, he became the third black student ever enrolled at Rutgers College. He went on to receive a law degree from Columbia Law School while simultaneously playing in the NFL and performing in professional musicals.

After renouncing a career in law due to racism within the system, he became a major player in the Harlem Renaissance and a renowned stage and film actor. He toured Europe as a performer during the late 1920s before becoming more politically active in the 1930s. He campaigned against racism and social injustice while supporting loyalist soldiers in the Spanish Civil War, anti-Nazi campaigns, and Welsh miners. After World War II, Robeson was hounded under policies of McCarthyism and blacklisted in the 1950s.

Paul Robeson performs “Ole Man River”

McQueen previously explored Robeson’s life through an art installation called “End Credits” at the Schaulager museum in Switzerland. The exhibit featured documentation of the FBI surveillance and harassment Robeson was subjected to during the 1950s.

McQueen’s film is still in the early stages, and there’s no word yet on a start date or casting. But speaking at an awards ceremony, McQueen said of the project, “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.”


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