Paul Robeson was the first Black American actor to make films where his characters had dignity and intelligence. He was also one of the first actors of any background to have final cut approval on a film. After inadvertently making a pro-colonialist film in Great Britain for the Korda brothers called "Sanders of The River aka Bosambo" (!) Robeson had tired of playing stereotypes. So why then did he agree to do Show Boat (1936) for legendary director James Whale? He had asked for a huge sum of money thinking they would balk which they did not. More importantly it gave him a chance to define, for cinematic history, the words to Jerome Kern's "Old Man River." This song would follow him his entire career as he changed the lyrics from one of indolence and stereotypes (the original lyrics from the 20's actually feature the 'n' word) to defiance. The changes in Robeson's concert renditions of the song shift the portrayal of Joe away from a resigned and sad character who is susceptible to the forces of his world, to one who is timelessly empowered and able to persevere through even the most trying circumstances.
All politics aside, I'm glad Robeson had an Olympian moment like this on the silver screen with his friend Hattie McDaniel. We have the benefit of hindsight and so did Robeson who would play Othello three times and who's great legacy will never vanish.
"Paul Robeson stood for everything I believe in."
Robeson's changes in the lyrics of the song are as follows:
1. Instead of "There's an ol' man called de Mississippi, / That's de ol' man that I'd like to be...", Robeson sang "There's an ol' man called the Mississippi, / That's the ol' man I don't like to be"..."
2. Instead of "Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An' you land in jail...", Robeson sang "Tote that barge and lift dat bale!/ You show a little grit and / You lands in jail..."
3. Instead of "Ah gits weary / An' sick of tryin'; / Ah'm tired of livin' / An skeered of dyin', / But Ol' Man River, / He jes' keeps rolling along!" , Robeson sang "But I keeps laffin'/ Instead of cryin' / I must keep fightin'; / Until I'm dyin', / And Ol' Man River, / He'll just keep rollin' along!"
In recitals and in several of his many recordings of the song, Robeson also omitted the controversial section "N words all work on de Mississippi...", etc., with its middle portion "Don't look up/ An' don't look down/ You don't dast make / De white boss frown", etc., as well as its concluding "Lemme go ' way from de Mississippi/ Lemme go ' way from de white man boss, etc." . However, Robeson did include a portion of these lyrics in the 1932 4-record 78 RPM album of selections from Show Boat.