After walking away from the Oscars earlier this year with three trophies including Best Picture for “12 Years A Slave,” Steve McQueen kept a low profile. While many other award winning directors would go after the many opportunities that would be laid before the them, McQueen, never one to go down a traditional path anyway, put his energies elsewhere. But it looks like he’s got a brand new movie developing, and it will find him visiting another figure in African-American history, though one much more well known than Solomon Northrup.
Speaking at the Hidden Heroes awards in New York City, the director revealed his next movie will be about Paul Robeson. While he’s probably mostly known as the pipes behind “Ol’ Man River,” Robeson was as immensely talented as he was politically outspoken. An athlete, singer and actor, he was also a powerful voice in the Civil Rights movement, embraced communism (which led to being blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era), explored other political and social issues, and was nothing short of a renaissance man. His story is one that McQueen has long admired.
There’s not many other details on the project right now, though Harry Belafonte will be involved in some manner. And while we’ll be eager to see what approach McQueen takes to Robeson’s life, perhaps his 2012 work “End Credits” will give a clue. It utilized thousands of FBI documents detailing their surveillance of Robeson, in a six hour audio/visual display that had both male and female voices reading from the material. Here’s a summary from Schaulager Lorenz Foundation:
One of the most recent installations in the exhibition is dedicated to the African-American singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson (1898 –1976). The thousands and thousands of pages in the file assiduously compiled by the FBI during years of surveillance in the McCarthy era pass by in a screening that takes almost six hours. The heavily censored, now publicly accessible documents are read by male and female voices. The visual and acoustic material soon shifts out of kilter, essentially revealing the extent of this disembodied surveillance system. Instead of making a feature film, McQueen chose to pay tribute to the civil rights activist in the form of «end credits», literally bringing to light the devastating nature of his politically motivated discrimination, marginalization and persecution. A successful movie star in the 1930s, Robeson became increasingly committed to political and social issues. His championship of the rights of workers and blacks, a trip to the Soviet Union and public appearances both at home and abroad not only made Robeson one of the most celebrated figures in the African-American movement; he was also perceived as a serious threat to the paranoid anti-Communist, conservative politics of the Cold War.