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SONG OF FREEDOM(director/writer: J. Elder Wills; screenwriters: story by Maj. Claude Wallace & & Dorothy Holloway/ Maichael Barringer/Ingram D’Abbes/Philip Lindsay/Fenn Hill Sherie; cinematographers: Eric Cross/Harry Rose/Thomas Glover; editor: Arthur Tavares; music: Eric Ansell; cast: Paul Robeson (John ‘Johnny’ Zinga), Elizabeth Welch (Ruth Zinga), Esme Percy (Donizetti), George Mozart (Bert Puddick), Cornelia Smith (Queen Zinga), Ecce Homo Toto (Mandingo), Jenny Dean (Marian), James Solomon (Native Leader), Robert Adams (Monty); Runtime: 70; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Fraser Passmore/Will Hammer; British Lion Films; 1936-UK)
“It’s worth seeing just to hear Robeson sing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Song of Freedom starred the celebrated Paul Robeson, an influential African-American figure in history and one of the world’s greatest voices, who is fresh from his success in Sanders of the River. This is the great singers juiciest film role (The Emperor Jones was still on the stereotypical side), but in a film carelessly directed by J. Elder Wills (“Big Fella”) resulting in a dated and uneven work. Though it’s worth seeing just to hear Robeson sing and because of its take on the racial issues of the day. It’s a film where one of the characters says with a straight face about the natives “The people, still dominated by these witch doctors, will never allow the white man to come near them. And so, they are still backward, uncivilized, impoverished.”

Robeson plays John Zinga, a London longshoreman who gets along well with the other white dock workers and is discovered by an opera impresario (Esme Percy) while singing “Jericho” on the docks. The impresario makes him into an opera singer. When John sings his “Freedom Song” for an opera about Africa, a song that was handed down to him from his family generations, he’s told by someone in the audience that there’s a history to that song. John learns that in 1700 a couple escaped from the cruel Queen Zinga (Cornelia Smith) on a West African island but are taken on a slave ship to Europe. Also, a royal medallion taken at the time is passed on to succeeding generations–something he possesses. John gives up his opera success and finds a way to return to his native roots in West Africa when he discovers that he’s a king on a small island and in a position to save his people from the power of the witch doctors. He will sing the “Freedom Song” again in the climactic scene when that song convinces the witch doctors that he’s the rightful king of the Kasanga tribe and they let his wife Ruth (Elizabeth Welch) go free after holding her as a hostage. When the film transfers its studio set to Africa, it took on the cheesy look of a B-film and its unrealistic depiction of Africa was not even on par with those Tarzan films.

Robeson was a booming voice against racism from the 1930s on and because of his outspoken criticism of the American government and his belief in communism and socialism as a possible solution to the problem of racism in America, he was during the Red Scare of the ’50s forced into a self-imposed exile to live in Europe. In the 1930s he lived in London in order to find artistic freedom and escape the stereotyped roles offered him in America, and traveled widely across Europe, Africa, and in particular the Soviet Union.

The Song of Freedom was made by Hammer Films in London. Robeson is quoted in saying that he liked the role because it was “the first film to give a true picture of many aspects of the life of the colored man in the West and it showed the struggle his people were going through to educate themselves.”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”