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Charles Musser, professor of film and American studies at Yale University, spoke on “Robeson’s Research for His Roles in Films and Plays” (see conference schedule). The moderator was Norman Roberts, professor of communications/theater at Northampton Community College.

Paul Robeson’s depiction in movies as a lazy dockworker and other stereotypical characters may seem a demeaning time in his fabled career, but there is actually much positive to glean from his film legacy, said Charles Musser.

Musser launched what he called “an all-out defense” of Robeson’s movie work, even if Robeson himself faulted his own roles and Hollywood.

“Robeson’s films are usually viewed as a significant but embarrassing facet of his career,” said Musser. “But was he a victim? Would his career be better off if he hadn’t appeared in films? The answer is no.”

Musser pointed out that films are “always complex,” and how they are seen and understood can change over time.

In addition, Robeson worked within the confines of seemingly pigeonholed roles to improve them, changing words in songs and dialogue in scripts, and shining through as the intelligent, accomplished person he was, Musser said.

In Show Boat, which features Robeson’s signature song, “Ol’ Man River,” “There is a gap between the character of Joe and Robeson himself, a tension between the character and his own person,” Musser said. “The character is supposed to be lazy, but Robeson exudes energy.”

He said Robeson didn’t especially want to perform the movie role, but probably felt uncomfortable with the idea of someone else doing it. In his various characters, Musser said, Robeson “took raw material and made it his own, filling it with a certain nobility.”

While the films may not have been professionally satisfying, he notes, the money Robeson made from them allowed him to pursue roles that he really wanted. In addition, Robeson’s concert work played off his theater work and later his film work, Musser said.

Robeson’s son, Paul Robeson Jr., who attended Musser’s talk, said although the films may seem demeaning, Robeson wasn’t as frustrated by them as he might have been because he could perceive progress in the film industry’s depiction of blacks.

In addition, as he became a star, Robeson Jr. said, his father had more room to rewrite an entire script.

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