The opening of “Paul Robeson: ‘I’m a Negro. I’m an American.’” offers an unintentional caveat about the 1989 documentary directed by the East German filmmaker Kurt Tetzlaff. Paul Robeson’s rich baritone undergirds archival footage of Black children playing in a dusty open space, smokestacks in the background. The use by the director of a Negro spiritual, however beautiful, swaps whatever joy these kids might have been experiencing (they are at play after all) for a questionable sentimentality around Black life and suffering.
But then much of Tetzlaff’s documentary, recently restored and receiving its first theatrical run in New York, casts an aura — admiring and melancholy — around Robeson to the detriment of a more shaded portrait. The athlete-performer-activist’s achievements are well known (gridiron great, Columbia University Law graduate, first Black Othello on Broadway), but in this film, their roots and meaning go mostly unexplored.
The documentary shows glimmers of promise when featuring interviewees who had an intimate grasp of the America that shaped but also tore down Robeson. Harry Belafonte turns teary talking about Robeson’s grace. The singer Pete Seeger’s account of white rioters attacking attendees at a Peekskill, N.Y., concert in support of workers in 1949 remains chilling. Tetzlaff aims to dive into Robeson’s mistreatment by the United States government for his activism, as well as his expressed admiration of the Soviet Union and its people — but the movie sticks to the shallow end.
Hinted at, but never fully realized here, is a more compelling film about the tantalizing promise Black progressives like Robeson held for Eastern Bloc citizens, like the director.
Paul Robeson: ‘I’m a Negro. I’m an American.’
Not rated. In English and German, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes. In theaters.