Steve McQueen to make film about Paul Robeson

The Oscar-winning director of 12 Years a Slave reveals that his next project will take as its subject the American civil rights activist, singer and actor

The artist and director Steve McQueen has revealed that his next film will be about the black American actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson.

McQueen, whose last film 12 Years a Slave won an Oscar for best picture, described the movie as his dream project.

“His life and legacy was the film I wanted to make the second after Hunger,” McQueen said, referring to his debut movie, about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. “But I didn’t have the power, I didn’t have the juice.”

McQueen was speaking on stage in New York at the Hidden Heroes awards, organised by the Andrew Goodman Foundation, named in honour of one of three young civil rights activists murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964.

The director told the audience that he first discovered Robeson at the age of 14. A neighbour called Mr Milton used to give McQueen books and articles he thought might be of interest, and one day put a cutting about Robeson through his parents’ letterbox.

“It was about this black guy who was in Wales and was singing with these miners,” remembered McQueen. “I was about 14 years old, and not knowing who Paul Robeson was, this black American in Wales, it seemed strange. So then, of course, I just found out that this man was an incredible human being.”

The son of an escaped slave, the young Robeson excelled at virtually everything he turned his hand to. Abandoning a legal career after experiencing severe racism at work, Robeson embarked on an acting and singing career that earned him worldwide fame.

At the same time, he campaigned against racism and social injustice, performing for loyalist soldiers in the Spanish civil war, at anti-Nazi demonstrations – and frequently in south Wales, after a delegation of unemployed miners walked to London to meet Robeson, who was appearing in Show Boat in the West End.

During the McCarthy era in the US, Robeson was denounced as a communist, blacklisted from film studios and concert venues, and refused a passport to travel abroad. Though it was reinstated in 1958, his career – along with his mental health – had been brutally curtailed.

McQueen has made Robeson the subject of a previous artwork, End Credits. The camera scrolls through documents detailing the FBI’s persecution of the actor, while a voiceover reads out excerpts. The Guardian’s art critic Adrian Searle described it as “a chilling record of the exercise of power, and Robeson’s equally concerted effort to fight against it”.

Robeson’s friend and peer Harry Belafonte is involved in McQueen’s forthcoming film. The pair met at the New York Film Critics awards. “We get on like a house on fire,” McQueen told the Guardian. “I never thought I’d make a new friend, and a man who is 87 years old but I’m very happy, he’s a beautiful man.”

In New York on Monday night Belafonte awarded McQueen the Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Media Hero award, saying: “I am soon to be 88 years of age, and in the face of that raw and disturbing truth, I am so honoured and so rewarded that I should have lived long enough to see the emergence of a young man in the world of culture who delivered to us one of the quintessential works of art in film.”

12 Years a Slave, he said, “is absolutely without any equivocation the finest picture dealing with a deeper and more profound look at black life, black people, black struggle and black power”.

McQueen did not divulge who would play Robeson, what Belafonte’s precise role was or when the film would be out. He added: “We’re very fortunate that we’re on a roll together to make this dream a reality. Miracles do happen. With Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte, things have come full circle.”


Alex Needham

The GuardianTramp

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