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Lafayette will inaugurate a series of major conferences on the history and culture of civil rights and civil liberties with a three-day conference entitled “Paul Robeson: His History and Development as an Intellectual” on campus April 7-9.

Charles Musser, professor of film and American studies at Yale University, will speak on “Robeson’s Research for His Roles in Films and Plays” at 3:30 p.m. Friday, April 8, in Kirby Hall of Civil Rights 104 (see conference schedule). Moderating the session will be Norman Roberts, professor of communications/theater at Northampton Community College.

In 1998, when Charles Musser was asked to serve as adviser and co-curator for a Paul Robeson film retrospective at Rutgers University, he had had very little exposure to the actor’s film performances.

Few libraries or archives in the United States contained copies of Robeson’s work, notes Musser, a professor of film and American studies at Yale University, and he was forced to travel to England just to view several of Robeson’s movies.

“My involvement in cinema has often entailed reviewing films that are problematic and have been dismissed, but have at least been talked about,” says Musser, who has been named a Film Scholar for 2005 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “In a way, Robeson’s work had been essentially off-limits.”

When Robeson’s films were released, many critics attacked Robeson’s performances, saying they were embarrassing and worthless, Musser says, adding that these criticisms fueled a type of extinction of copies of his films.

“So I sort of started out with this problem, which was that Robeson’s film work tended to be denigrated, yet at the same time the only record we have of him as a performer is his film work,” Musser says. “So if Robeson is a major artistic and cultural figure of the 20th century, you start off with this contradiction – they were obviously necessary texts, yet at the same time dismissed.”

This discovery started Musser down a path of studying and writing about Robeson’s film work. He has published two significant articles about Robeson’s film performances and is in the process of getting a third into press. He will speak on Robeson’s research for his roles in films and plays at Lafayette’s April conference on Robeson’s history and development as an intellectual.

To Musser, who holds a doctorate in cinema studies from Yale and a bachelor’s degree in film and literature from New York University, participating in the conference is an opportunity to bring to light some lesser-known aspects of a very public part of Robeson’s life.

“For me it’s a process of going deeper and really focusing on an area I haven’t had the chance to do until now,” Musser says.

Musser is coeditor of Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Period, published by Indiana University Press in 2001, and author of “Despite All Barriers: Paul Robeson & Song of the Rivers,” in AndrĂ© Stufkens’ Cinema Without Borders: The Films of Joris Ivens (2002) and “Troubled Relations: Paul Robeson, Eugene O’Neill and Oscar Micheaux,” in Jeffrey Stewart’s Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen (1998).

At Lafayette Musser will focus on ways in which Robeson’s films can be understood as complex and progressive cultural interventions, rather than the embarrassing aspect of his legacy, which is how most view this component of his career.

“Almost all of his film works have been labeled problematic by one person or another,” Musser explains. “I’m interested in looking at his films from a more generous perspective, how they can be made interesting and redeemed; how can they be understood, if we assume that Robeson had some idea of what he was doing; how the films in some way reflect, despite numerous impediments, the thoughtful person he was,” Musser says.

Robeson’s films have often been labeled as rubbish because Robeson himself criticized them, Musser says.

“He was always looking toward the future. He was always hopeful and optimistic about the next project, and often the next project did not live up to his expectations, or circumstances changed,” Musser says. “Rather than defend what was in the past, he asserted and believed that the next project would be far better. To the historian, Robeson can sometimes seem his own worst enemy.”

Robeson was perhaps the only black man who starred in mainstream movies during the 1930s, Musser says, Robeson’s decision to take a role in a movie was often the defining factor in getting the film made. Because Robeson chose roles that went beyond what average black actors were doing at the time, he was running considerable risk. However, Musser points out, as film scholar Michele Wallace has noted, “If a black actor or actress waited to find a role that wasn’t problematic in this period, that person would have never found any work at all.”

“In appearing in these films, Robeson was engaging in complex ways with stereotypes and narrative problems and doing so in a way that, on one level, left him open for criticism,” Musser says.

For instance, for many of his performances, he would mentally twist existing stereotypes of a particular role, find “gaps” in the stereotype, and refigure the role to make sense of how the character was supposed to act, Musser says.

“When he came into this area, he had to work under incredible constraints in what was a deeply racist system,” Musser adds. “But it was one that had fissures, and he was often able to exploit them.”

Not only did Robeson have to deal with external tensions, he grappled also with an internal conflict between him and his work.

“While Robeson, on one level, might play a lazy black man, at that very moment he was also traveling all over the country, doing five different things at the same time,” Musser says. “He was exuding energy, purpose, and optimism. So there was often this real tension between the roles he played and the role that he himself embodied,” Musser explains.

Musser says he hopes his presentation will provide conference attendees another dimension of knowledge about Robeson.

“It’s part of a cumulative portrait,” Musser says. “I’m just looking at one strand of his career and trying to see how his film work fit in with his political work, and how it related to his roles as concert singer and actor on the stage. These things are interrelated, and I think by hearing other people talk about these dimensions of his career we are all building on where we were before.

“We’ll find new connections, as well, across the different aspects of his remarkable career.”

Musser adds that he hopes his lecture will illustrate how the issues Robeson dealt with in his career are just as important today as they were in the mid-1900s.

“The issues of race and representation and race and performance are underlying in so many of the problems of American culture today and, broadly speaking, the world,” Musser says. “This is trying to understand how Robeson worked and what kind of impact he had, and these are question, topics, that continue to be relevant today.”

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