Paul Robeson may be the most important African-American entertainer of the 20th century, but his recorded legacy is so compromised that a DVD set like Criterion's Paul Robeson: Portraits Of The Artist may be the only way to understand him. Robeson was a college football all-American before he left law school to pursue a stage career in the '20s, and his imposing physical and mental presence informed his choices as he migrated to the movies. It isn't just that Robeson took personal offense at shuffling servant roles, but that a man so strong—with a voice so rich—looked ridiculous playing a dim-witted sycophant. So he bounced from independent "race movies" to tony Hollywood productions to British adventure films to agit-prop documentaries, each time confronting how best to represent himself without being reduced to a stereotype or a symbol. And though he rarely succeeded—on film, anyway—Portraits Of The Artist is still essential, in large part because the movies on it aren't all that great.
There are exceptions. Robeson's portrayal of the Pullman-Car-worker-turned-African-warlord in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones suffers from the playwright's well-meaning attempt at black patois, but the indictment of capitalism remains sharp and complex, and Robeson brings a satiric sparkle to lines like "For a little stealin', they puts you in jail; for big stealin', they makes you emperor." Robeson also shines in 1937's more rousing Jericho, in which he plays an unjustly court-martialed sailor who flees to North Africa and becomes a tribal leader. And even without his telltale basso croon, Robeson is arresting as a drunkard minister in Oscar Micheaux's muddled 1925 silent melodrama Body And Soul, which starts as a blistering attack on the church's stranglehold on the black community, and ends with ridiculous everybody-make-nice dream sequences.
But just as revelatory is the painful Sanders Of The River, which features Robeson half-naked and willingly supplicated to the wisdom of British colonials, and the trippy 1930 avant-garde feature Borderline, in which Robeson provides mere shock value as a black man in the middle of an interracial, bisexual love quadrangle. The most satisfying film on this set may be 1942's hooray-for-organized-labor docu-collage Native Land, but it only uses Robeson's narration because of what he stands for. He's better-represented in The Proud Valley, a 1940 Welsh coal-mining drama in which his race is incidental, and he's just another laborer. In that film—and even in the films where he had to slacken his jaw and lazy up his dialect—Robeson commands attention, like a lion in a pet shop.
Key features: Informative scholar commentaries on The Emperor Jones and Body And Soul, plus scores of old and new documentaries.