Steve McQueen to direct film centered on Paul Robeson’s life

Before Steve McQueen directed features like “Hunger,” “Shame,” and the Best Picture-winning “12 Years a Slave,” he was a video artist whose work appeared in museums and galleries. “End Credits” was one such work, an audio/video installation projecting pages of the FBI”s McCarthy-era investigation of actor-activist Paul Robeson while a voiceover reads the reports” cringe-worthy details aloud. McQueen”s topical explorations took experimental shape, many fascinations that first popped up in visual art have crept into his big screen work. According to the director, “End Credits” will undergo the same evolution – McQueen has announced that he”ll direct a feature film based on Robeson”s life.

On Tuesday evening in New York City, McQueen accepted the Media Hero award stage at the Andrew Goodman Foundation”s Hidden Heroes awards. Taking the stage to say a few words, the director revealed that his next film would focus on the legendary African-American figure he”d only touched upon in his previous work.

“His life and legacy was the film I wanted to make the second after 'Hunger,'” McQueen announced to the crowd, The Guardian reports. “But I didn”t have the power, I didn”t have the juice.”

The untitled Paul Robeson film marks the first feature project McQueen has acknowledged since “12 Years a Slave” took the Academy Awards” top prize last year. Most of his attention has gone to “Codes of Conduct,” an HBO show he created with Matthew Michael Carnahan. There are no details on who may play Robeson or when the film could begin shooting, but it”s on McQueen”s mind enough to come out with it to a public crowd.

Robeson has a fascinating and diverse life that no short blurb can do justice (see author Martin Duberman's “Paul Robeson” for a deep account). He was a football star in the 1910s, a budding lawyer, a theater star, a singer, a continued scholar, a film actor – famously singing “Ol' Man River” in 1936″s “Show Boat” – a Civil Rights activist, and a victim of the McCarthyism era (thus, the copious amounts of FBI documents investigating his private life). It took the Criterion Collection a package of seven films, a documentary, and a booklet of essays to try and encompass the man in its “Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist” set. A film based on Robeson”s life could go pretty much anywhere. Or everywhere. 

Honoring McQueen with the Media Hero was Harry Belafonte, who spoke took time during his Governor's Award speech to describe Robeson”s impact on his own life:

It was an early stimulus to the beginning of my rebellion against injustice and human distortion, and to think, how fortunate for me that the performing arts became the catalyst that fueled my desire for social change. In its pursuit, I came upon fellow artists, like the great actor and my hero, singer/humanist Paul Robeson, painter Charles White, dancer Katherine Dunham, historian and superior academic mind W.E.B. Du Bois, social strategist and educator Eleanor Roosevelt, writers Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin – they all inspired me. They excited me, deeply influenced me. And they were also my moral compass. It was Robeson who said, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. They are civilization's radical voice.” This Robeson environment sounded like a desired place to be. Given the opportunity to dwell there has never disappointed me.

According to The Guardian's report, the McQueen-Belafonte friendship will grow into a working relationship for the film; The singer-actor will appear in the Robeson biopic in a yet-to-be-announced role.