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Song of Freedom (1936)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Song of Freedom (1936)
35mm, black and white, 80 mins
DirectorJ. Elder Wills
Production CompanyHammer Productions
Screenplay Fenn Sherie, Ingram D'Abbes
Original storyClaude Wallace, Dorothy Holloway
MusicEric Ansell

Cast: Paul Robeson (John Zinga); Elisabeth Welch (Ruth Zinga); Esme Percy (Gabriel Donezetti); George Mozart (Bert Puddick); Robert Adams (Monty)

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John Zinga, a London-born docker, becomes a world-famous opera singer and discovers he is the descendant of African royalty.

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A substantial acknowledgement of the history of black Britons and their position in contemporary (1930s) Britain can be found in Song of Freedom (d. J Elder Wills, 1936), an exceptional star vehicle for Paul Robeson.

After the embarrassment of Sanders of the River (d. Zoltan Korda, 1935), Robeson insisted on a clause in his contract allowing him to approve the final editing. Consequently, he tried, almost successfully, to appear in a film that included a hero who departed from the traditional racist stereotypes. However, in spite of its shortcomings (the sequence set in Africa is embarrassing), Robeson valued the film as "[the first] to give a true picture of many aspects of the life of the coloured man in the west."

Robeson's performance beautifully expresses John Zinga's feeling of social displacement, his desire to visit his ancestral home in Africa and the need to find his people. Zinga is shown to have integrated into London's dockland community together with his wife, Ruth (Elisabeth Welch), although some critics have found the couple's portrayal bourgeois and unrealistic.

Ruth departs from the stereotypical depiction of black women in films upto that time. For example, in American cinema they were caricatured as clownish, desexualised mammies or maids. Ruth is neither: she is an intelligent, articulate and caring wife.

One of the most striking features of Song of Freedom, and one that has been completely ignored, is the loving relationship between John and Ruth. At the end of an emotional musical interlude in which John sings 'Sleepy River' to his wife, the couple kiss, probably the first time a black couple were permitted to do so in a film.

For a British film of the 1930s, all this is revolutionary - especially when we remember that Song of Freedom was released within a year of Sanders of the River. In spite of its highly improbable plot, and stereotypical depiction of Africans, Song of Freedom is a landmark film within the history of British cinema for two reasons: it acknowledges the black presence in 1930s England, and it shows that it was possible for a black man to be born in Britain.

It is the only film in which Robeson played a British-born character rather than Africans or African-Americans. It is a radical departure from previous representations of black people in British films, but sadly one that has never been fully appreciated.

Stephen Bourne

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. River song (7:19)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Big Fella (1937)
Borderline (1930)
King Solomon's Mines (1937)
Proud Valley, The (1940)
Sanders of the River (1935)
Robeson, Paul (1898-1976)
Welch, Elisabeth (1908-2003)
British African Stories