While watching Show Boat, I was utterly captivated by Paul Robeson, a figure whose name I have heard my entire life but whom I had never actually seen in a performance before. Hearing his remarkable voice and witnessing how he dominates the screen, it immediately made sense to me why I have always heard his name and why he remains such a famous Black figure. Yet, despite how impressed I was with his talent and performance, I was still cognizant of the role he was playing. Despite having arguably the best voice of anyone in the film and extreme acting chops, the character he was playing was minor and lowly. Robeson’s Joe was lazy and inactive, clearly uneducated and pretty irrelevant to the story altogether, leading me to wonder why he would have taken on such a role at all. I also recognized Hattie McDaniel in a similarly unimpressive role and thought of her future achievement at the Academy Awards for her role in Gone With the Wind, which is evidence of her own acting abilities. Both of these unbelievably talented Black actors were in roles that were in no way doing them justice.
After watching Here I Stand and learning that Paul Robeson only accepted the stereotypical role of Joe in Show Boat after circumstances surrounding contract negotiation, his presence made slightly more sense. The Heavenly Bodies reading directly addresses the paradox of well-educated and intelligent Robeson in a role which undermines Black progress and portrays Black people as less than respectable, referencing the artificiality and that “Robeson as Joe was not a case of natural emanation but something that had to be worked up, learnt, produced as a particular image (and then resisted as an image)” (Dyer 76).
The resistance to this image is still an issue in Hollywood today. Black actors continue to struggle to find roles that portray them as more than simply their race, if even that. Many of the roles which Black actors receive are for characters that could not be played by non-Black actors or their roles portray Black characters as subservient, suffering, or villainous. This is particularly evident in the roles Black actors are recognized for in the Oscars and other award ceremonies. Hattie McDaniel won her Oscar for playing a caricature of a maid, Halle Berry won her Oscar for playing a character in Monster’s Ball with controversial racial circumstances and Lupita Nyong'o won her Oscar for her role as a slave in 12 Years A Slave. I wish we had made more progress since Robeson’s day, but the screens show us we haven’t.