Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Robeson, Paul (1898-1976)

Actor, Singer

Main image of Robeson, Paul (1898-1976)

Treated as an outcast in America, the country of his birth, the actor, singer and political activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) settled in Britain in the late 1920s, and remained there until the outbreak of World War Two. At the height of his popularity in the 1930s, Robeson became a major box office attraction in British films.

Black characters in American cinema of the period rarely moved beyond Al Jolson in blackface, or the dim-witted buffoons played by comedy actors like Stepin Fetchit. For the ambitious Robeson there were hardly any opportunities to play challenging roles. Even so, in all of his films, whatever their merits, he succeeded in bringing intelligence, strength and compassion to his characters. This is particularly evident in three of his British films: Song of Freedom (d. J Elder Wills, 1936), Jericho (d. Thornton Freeland, 1937) and The Proud Valley (d. Penrose Tennyson, 1940).

When Robeson became a major star in British films in the mid-1930s, he negotiated for roles that projected a positive image of a black man, roles that broke away from one-dimensional and offensive racial stereotypes. But he often found himself in conflict with an industry that glorified the British Empire and colonialism. This was certainly the case with his first commercial film, Sanders of the River (d. Zoltan Korda, 1935), one of a cycle of imperial adventures produced by Alexander Korda for London Films.

Though Robeson publicly disowned Sanders, Marcus Garvey, the outspoken Jamaican nationalist leader, still denounced the actor for "pleasing England by the gross slander and libel of the Negro" In spite of this, Robeson believed that the British film industry had something to offer, and continued acting in British films for several years.

After returning to America, Robeson accepted an offer to play a sharecropper in a segment of a Hollywood-produced film called Tales of Manhattan (1942) but, after the film was released, he was criticised for perpetuating a racist stereotype. Robeson agreed with his critics, and volunteered to join protestors outside cinemas where the film was being shown. He never made another film appearance as an actor.

Paul Robeson died in 1976 at the age of 77.

On 10 October 2002, Dame Cleo Laine unveiled an English Heritage Blue Plaque on one of his London homes.

Stephen Bourne

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Big Fella (1937)Big Fella (1937)

Paul Robeson musical comedy set on the Marseilles waterfront

Thumbnail image of Borderline (1930)Borderline (1930)

Avant-garde feature exploring racial, sexual and psychological issues

Thumbnail image of King Solomon's Mines (1937)King Solomon's Mines (1937)

Empire adventure about the hunt for legendary African diamond mines

Thumbnail image of Mining Review 2/11: A Star Drops In (1949)Mining Review 2/11: A Star Drops In (1949)

Paul Robeson visits Edinburgh miners

Thumbnail image of Proud Valley, The (1940)Proud Valley, The (1940)

Paul Robeson's last British feature, set in a Welsh mining community

Thumbnail image of Sanders of the River (1935)Sanders of the River (1935)

The first of Korda's British colonial epics, disowned by its star

Thumbnail image of Song of Freedom (1936)Song of Freedom (1936)

Paul Robeson stars as a London docker who discovers his African royal lineage

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Black British FilmBlack British Film

Pride, pressure and rage

Thumbnail image of British African StoriesBritish African Stories

Stories of colonial and post-colonial Africa

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Robeson, Eslanda (1896-1965)Robeson, Eslanda (1896-1965)

Actor, Writer