• 1   IT JUST KEEPS ROLLIN’ ALONG:
    THE STATUS QUO

There is no more typical black character in early twentieth-century American film than the handyman Joe in Show Boat. The supporting role of the obsequious, inarticulate servant seems ill suited to its brilliant, classically trained performer, Paul Robeson. Robeson’s performance of Othello holds the record for the longest-running play by Shakespeare on Broadway; his concerts and recordings of protest songs and Negro spirituals helped popularize this music in the United States and abroad. Rutgers University valedictorian and graduate of Columbia Law School, Robeson was an outspoken public intellectual and humanitarian.

But in Hollywood in the 1930s and in the decades that followed, the number and types of roles available to black actors in commercial films were limited at best. 

Joe is both the film’s icon of southern black subservience and its beacon of hope. It is he, in this dramatic, soulful rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” who sets up Show Boat’s principal message: that the human will and spirit can overcome almost any hardship. Yet the character was little more than a stereotype—a shadow of the complex being whom Robeson sought to reveal, not in the words he was given, but through the nuances of his extraordinary performance.

Depicting African Americans neither as slaves nor as equal, such ambiguous, subtly hostile images typified black representation in mainstream visual culture at the dawn of the civil rights movement. While less aggressive than the grotesque stereotypes of the segregationist South, this imagery was no less damaging to African Americans and no less enabling of the prejudices of white people.

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Show Boat, 1936
Show Boat, 1936
Show Boat, 1936

Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones, 1933
Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones, 1933
Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones, 1933
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Robeson appeared in eleven films, his most lauded and distinguished role that of Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones. Seeking out dignified characters, The actor achieved modest success in England but saw no future for himself in American movies because, he said, “the South is Hollywood’s box office.” His last film, Tales of Manhattan, by the French director Julien Duvivier, was released in 1942.