“Here’s Seth talking about him being Black. Why, damn and blast it, man, aren’t we all black down that pit?”
Proud Valley 1940
“Wales ... where I first understood the struggle of white and Negro together ...”
In 1940, Robeson portrayed David Goliath in Proud Valley, his final British film. With a script from Welsh writer and ex-miner, Jack Jones, and shot in valley towns, this was for Robeson the most important of his films, which both deepened his relationship with the Welsh working class and forged for all time their love for him.
“Proud Valley does not skirt around the grim horror of life - and death - underground. At the eisteddfod ... David pays tribute to his pal with a moving rendition of ‘Deep River’, one of the most emotional sequences ever seen in a British film.”
Black in the British Frame
“The central figure is a Negro, and in the prejudice he meets, as a newcomer to the valley, his fellow miners’ gradual surrender to his kindly tolerance and understanding, and his sacrifice of life for his friend, you may read a moving sermon on the brotherhood of man.”
In the moving centenary tribute held at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1998, the actors Whoopi Goldberg and Ossie Davis recalled the story of Robeson’s first contact with the Welsh people:
“One day during the grim winter of 1929, when unemployment and desperate poverty stalked the British Isles, he was on his way to a gala affair when he heard the rich sound of a Welsh miners’ choir. He had crossed the path of a group of miners from South Wales who were walking along the street at the kerbside and singing for money to sustain themselves. One of their signs said they had walked all the way from Wales to petition the government for help. Without hesitation, Paul joined the group of singing miners, walking the streets with them and humming along. When they reached one of the large downtown buildings, Paul mounted its front steps and sang to his new friends - ‘Ol’ Man River’, popular ballads, and spirituals. To those who were there, it was an unforgettable experience. Later, he organized enough contributions to provide them with a ride back on a freight train that included a carload of food and clothing for the miners of the Rhondda Valley and their families.
That year he contributed the proceeds of one of his concerts to the Welsh Miners’ Relief Fund and visited the Rhondda Valley in person to sing for the mining communities and to talk with the people.”
From his first accidental meeting with Welsh miners, Robeson felt a strong affinity with Wales. He saw a culture built around the values of community, work and church; and a musical and performance tradition born out of struggle and oppression. Robeson felt the exploitative nature of Negro life in the United States had parallels with the coal miner’s experience in South Wales. He learnt the importance of solidarity on both a local and an international level.
“All my life I have loved music, and singing comes to me as naturally as talking. And from time to time when I have been in Wales, I have listened in amazement to the wonderful part-singing of youths at wayside stations, perhaps, or at a football match. When I myself have appeared on a concert platform in Wales, the Welsh have been most responsive, there appeared to be a real link of appreciation between us, and so when I saw the script ... with it’s setting of mining life, I was delighted ... It is a true human story.”
Although the socially-progressive message was somewhat diluted by the necessity to change the more radical ending due to the need for uninterrupted coal production during the war, Proud Valley remains virtually the only British film of this period to portray with an honest sympathy a black working-class character. But despite this experience, Robeson finally abandoned his movie career for good in 1942:
“I am no longer willing to identify myself with an organization that has no regard for reality - an organization that attempts to nullify public intelligence, falsify life and entirely ignore the many dynamic forces in the world today.”