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Paul Robeson as OthelloTwo bios readied on Robeson: a man "erased from history"

Originally published in Current, May 4, 1998

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Within days of each other, New Jersey Network and WNET in New York announced two separate biographies of the late performer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Both films are headed for national distribution by early 1999.

On March 14, NJN launched its pre-broadcast promotion for "Speak of Me As I Am," a one-hour documentary coproduced by BBC-Wales. On March 18, WNET's American Masters issued a press release on its two-hour project, which has the working title, "Paul Robeson: Here I Stand."

The NJN bio debuted April 9, marking the centennial of Robeson's birth, and will be supplemented with a curriculum and teacher's guide now being worked up by a professor at Drexel University.

NJN set out to produce a film to air in time for the centennial, and had raised partial funding when producers teamed up with BBC-Wales, which had been working on a similar project. NJN's concept was for a film that "had biography as part of it but also portrayed his politics and his legacy, and how the man was, in a sense, erased from history," comments Janice Selinger, NJN's co-executive producer. "That's one of the reasons we wanted to get into the schools."

"Speak of Me As I Am" chronicles Robeson's life from his boyhood in New Jersey and exemplary career as a student and football hero at Rutgers--for which New Jersey claims him as a native son--through his rise to international stardom and political activism on behalf of people struggling for social and economic justice. The price Robeson paid for his steadfast commitment to communism in Cold War America--public scorn and isolation, persecution by the government, and, late in life, mental breakdown--is carefully depicted here, but the film alludes only briefly to his emotional life, and says very little about his family.

"Robeson had a very interesting, very large life," says Selinger. "In an hour we were not able to put everything in there." This constraint provides another good reason for a teacher's guide that elaborates on how to expand on points in the documentary.

NJN plans to offer "Speak of Me As I Am" for national distribution through PBS or APS, according to Selinger. NVC Arts, a London-based distributor with international distribution rights, is also working on a deal for cable telecasts.

Meanwhile, research for the American Masters biopic is just getting underway, aiming for a tentative airdate of next February. Paul Robeson Jr. has granted producers exclusive access to his private archives of his father's personal papers and his mother's extensive diaries.

Gaining this permission did not come easily. Producer Chiz Schultz, a friend of Robeson Jr.'s, and David Menair, e.p. for Menair Media International, met with the performer's son several times over a four-month period and "gained his confidence to the point that he realized we were going to do a fair and definitive version of his father's story," recalls Menair. "There are 250 visuals in the private collection to which we have exclusive access and they are spectacular."

"It is very important to have the cooperation of the subject, " comments Susan Lacy, e.p. for American Masters. "Without it, the films are less rich. It makes a huge difference with us." She notes that Robeson agreed to release editorial control over the project to producers. "He trusts us."

Lacy said she screened NJN's "Speak of Me As I Am" and found it to be a "well-told story." She wanted to make sure American Masters was making "good use" of its resources by backing its own Robeson project. "We'll be able to go much deeper than that," aided largely by Robeson Jr.'s cooperation.

"I have real confidence that it's a huge story, a very important story, and the scale of this film will be of the proper scale for a man that's been written out of history."

"Paul Robeson: Here I Stand," will be written by Lou Potter and directed by St. Clair Bourne. Menair Media International is coproducing the documentary with American Masters.

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