Paul Robeson: "I'm a Negro. I'm an American."
(I'm a Negro. I'm an American - Paul Robeson)
I'm a Negro. I'm an American - Paul Robeson © DEFA-Stiftung
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.
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—now somewhat controversial—expresses admiration for the man and artist, while also making use of his role as a symbol.
|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|
|1989||Leipzig International Documentary and Animation Film Festival, East Germany|
“Paul Robeson was an artistic genius, moral titan, and courageous freedom fighter whom we must never forget!” —Dr. Cornel West, Harvard University
"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