Paul Robeson: "I'm a Negro. I'm an American."

(I'm a Negro. I'm an American - Paul Robeson)

GDR/FRG, 1989, 84 min, b&w
In German; English subtitles
Credits:
Director
Script
Editor
Camera

Synopsis

A cinematic homage to the African American singer, actor, civil rights activist Paul Robeson (1898–1976). At the peak of his singing career in the late 1940s, began to work primarily as a political activist and subsequently had to endure years of discrimination and isolation in his own country during the hysteria of 1950s McCarthyism. 
The documentary tells Robeson’s story in non-chronological order, using a compilation of materials: rarely shown historical footage, including from the 1949 Peekskill riots; photographs of the U.S. civil rights movement; speeches; performances and visits to East Germany and the Soviet Union. Interviews with Paul Robeson Jr., Earl Robinson, Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte give insight into the courageous life of a Renaissance man. Commonly referred as the “voice of the other America,” East German officials used Robeson’s image to bolster GDR solidarity with the U.S. civil rights movement.

 

This 1989 documentary—co-produced by the GDR’s DEFA Studio for Documentary Film and the West Berlin production company Chronos, with scenes shot in the U.S—made by East German film director Kurt Tetzlaff, honors the towering American artist, athlete and civil rights activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976). The film visits episodes in Robeson’s life, drawing attention to his performances and writings, as well as to the virulent racism and anti-communism he faced in the U.S. Interviews provide personal insights into him as a man. 

 

The 2022 digital restoration of this film remains as true to the original as possible. The image and sound quality of historical clips is limited. Certain words used by the director and people in the film are racist. This English-subtitled version makes efforts to address racist language and honor authorship. 

 

The title—Paul Robeson: “I’m a Negro. I’m an American.”— includes one of many quotations in the film from Robeson’s book Here I Stand. In the subtitles, terms for Black people that are and have always been derogatory in English and German are indicated as “n-word.” The word “Negro” has been retained out of respect for the progressive place it held for Robeson and other mid-20th century civil rights activists.

 

 

The film is also available for a Digital Site License for educational partners. Please find more information here.

 

 

 

Commentary

In the GDR, the American civil rights movement and Black activists were central to socialist solidarity in the international struggle for racial, gender and economic equality. The name of Paul Robeson, doubly admired because of his virtuosity as a singer and actor, was known to every East German. In recounting Robeson’s story, this documentary expresses admiration for the man and artist, while also making use of his role as a symbol.

 

"The digitization was done from a 35mm negative that included some spliced in archive material from various generations of prints. It was scanned in 4K. The audio was taken from mono magnetic tape. A distribution print was used as a reference for the partial German subtitles. The restoration, commissioned by the DEFA Foundation, was done by Cinegrell Postfactory GmbH in Berlin. It was made possible with fund- ing from the film heritage subsidy programme FFE."   —Philip Zengel, DEFA-Stiftung)

Awards

2023 SPECIAL REVIVAL RUN! at Anthology Film Archives, New York, USA
2023 HIDDEN FIGURES: Blackness and Black Experiences in East German Cinema, Amherst, MA
2022 The Black Quaker Lives Matter Film Festival, Cambridge, MA
2022 Film Restored, Film Heritage Festival, Berlin
2020 ASEEES virtual convention, USA
2020 German Studies Association virtual conference, USA
2018 Culture in the Cold War: East German Art, Music and Film, Amherst, USA
1999 Borderlines: Paul Robeson and Film, Museum of Modern Art, New York
1998 Paul Robeson Centennial Celebration, Bern, Switzerland
1990 Festival of the Political Song, Berlin, East Germany

Press comments

“This film is a must-watch! It intimately portrays Paul Robeson and allows us to experience him through the eyes of the people who loved him, including the great Harry Belafonte.”   —Kevina King, Howard University

 

“Kurt Tetzlaff's documentary simultaneously shows us twos side of Paul Robeson. On the one hand is the mythological Robeson; the outstanding artist and activist, whose leftist politics and solidarity with people around the globe so perfectly fit the GDR's ideal of crossracial alliance. On the other hand, there is Robeson the man, someone who felt betrayed by his country after he was banned from travel and performance due to his Communist sensibilities. Robeson spent his lifetime proving his worth, reciting Shakespeare, singing opera and fighting for the rights of the oppressed. But more often than not, even his white allies saw him only as a token - someone they wanted to perform a certain myth of Blackness they held dear. These expectations were arguably as restraining to Robeson as the bans on his travel and work. Tetzlaff's documentary honors Robeson, while also giving voice to his pain, in part by allowing those who knew him well express the hardships he didn't always share with the world. And thus, as a documentary about the complicated entanglement of politics, art and freedom, it offers a sorely needed perspective in our current political climate.”   —Priscilla Layne (U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

 

"An internationalist, anti-fascist exploration of the mid-twentieth century told through the life of a towering US public intellectual. Richly sonorous artistic scenes delight, even as Robeson’s commanding performances challenge the populist and state-sanctioned violence of the McCarthy Era. This nuanced, courageous documentary’s intersectional analysis of fascism and the Cold War could not be more relevant today."   —Jennifer Ruth Hosek, Queen’s University

 

 

"Paul Robeson was indeed an unsurpassed legend in American music, and Tetzlaff's film reminds us he was a legend, too, for the global left. Thanks to extended musical sequences and exclusive interviews with other legends such as Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, Tetzlaff portrays Robeson as the key linchpin between the American civil rights movement and the communist publics of the Eastern bloc."   —Evan Torner, U of Cincinnati

 

 

"From any perspective, the film stands as an elegant, revealing, and powerful portrait of a towering figure in American culture, society, and politics. Revisiting episodes in Robeson’s life, drawing attention to his performances and writings, and confronting the virulent racism and anti-communism he faced in the U.S., Paul Robeson: "I'm A Negro. I'm an American." documents the life of a groundbreaking artist whose courage, tenacity, and passion remain profoundly inspiring."   —Anthology Film Archives, New York, 2023

 

“Paul Robeson was an artistic genius, moral titan, and courageous freedom fighter whom we must never forget!”   —Dr. Cornel West, Harvard University

 

"A TRIBUTE TO AN ENTERTAINMENT TITAN. [...] One of the most influential performers and political figures to emerge from black America, Mr. Robeson was under a cloud in his native land during the Cold War as a political dissenter and an outspoken admirer of the Soviet Union."   —The New York Times, 1976

 

Availability

Stream

Shibboleth login