'12 Years a Slave' Director Making Paul Robeson Biopic

Jordan Zakarin
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Steven McQueen at the Oscars earlier this year

12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen revealed on Tuesday that he is working with legendary singer Harry Belafonte on a big screen biopic of actor and political activist Paul Robeson.

“His life and legacy was the film I wanted to make the second after Hunger,” McQueen said at an awards ceremony in New York, referring to his 2008 debut feature. “But I didn’t have the power, I didn’t have the juice.”

He described learning about Robeson as a 14-year-old thanks to literature given to him by a neighbor. The director, who also works as a visual artist, has already included Robeson in one of his installations, which focused on the FBI’s persecution of the iconic activist/singer/actor.

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Robeson, the son of an escaped slave, was an All-American football player before becoming world famous for the 1935 film Sanders of the River and the 1936 version of Show Boat, as well as his performance of Othello on Broadway. But he was even more dedicated to his social activism, supporting anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War and touring the world to visit Africa, Germany, and the Soviet Union.

The United States government harassed him and took away his passport, and he found himself blacklisted during the height of McCarthyism. The ban was ultimately lifted, but was a crushing blow to both his psyche and career.

McQueen met Belafonte, himself a renowned activist, during an awards ceremony in New York last year, and the two became fast friends.

"I am soon to be 88 years of age, and in the face of that raw and disturbing truth, I am so honored and so rewarded that I should have lived long enough to see the emergence of a young man in the world of culture who delivered to us one of the quintessential works of art in film,” Belafonte said on Monday, while presenting McQueen with the Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Media Hero award.

Photo credit: Associated Press