DATE April 26, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu discusses his new
film "Amores Perros"
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan, sitting in for Terry Gross.
A Mexican movie that was nominated for best foreign film is now opening in
theaters to wonderful reviews. "Amores Perros" takes off like a rocket. In
the first scene, we see two young men in a car racing through the streets of
Mexico City. There's a bleeding dog in the back seat, and they're being
chased by thugs in a pickup truck.
(Soundbite of "Amores Perros")
(Soundbite of vehicles racing)
Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)
(Soundbite of vehicles speeding; horn honking; vehicles crashing; glass
shattering; horn blaring)
Unidentified Man #2: (Spanish spoken)
Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)
CONAN: The car crash is the central event of "Amores Perros." We will
the stories of the people involved in the accident in three interconnected
subplots that take us into some of the very different worlds that coexist in
Mexico City. The actors--most of them unknown in this country--the script,
and Mexico City, itself, are all revelations. But most of the excitement
surrounding the film focuses on its 37-year-old director, Alejandro Gonzalez
Inarritu. He joins us on the line from Mexico City.
Welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU (Director, "Amores Perros"): Thank you very
much. How are you, Neal?
CONAN: Very well.
The title of your movie, "Amores Perros," how does that translate?
Mr. INARRITU: Well, basically, it's supposed--the first idea was, like,
"Love's a Bitch." But I don't think there's a right--it's very hard to
translate literally, but it would be something like "Tough Loves" or "Savage
Love" or "Love is a Dog." Do you know what I mean?
Mr. INARRITU: Love that hurts. So it's a word--it's a game, these two
words. And, obviously, the dogs were used basically as metaphors of the
characters, I think.
CONAN: Especially a dog named Kofi(ph), who gets involved in dog fighting
the first sequence in the movie. I don't know where you found him, but what
tremendous canine actor.
Mr. INARRITU: Yeah. I think we got a good trainer, you know. And the
actors really work a lot with the dogs. They train a lot. They feed them,
like, two times a week. So we create the very big and strong relation
the actors and the animals, you know.
Mr. INARRITU: And, basically, the movie in some way--because it's about a
lot of things--but in some way, it's about that. We tried to really explore
the nature of the dog that is very close to the nature of human beings, and
how intense and how close a relation between a man and a dog can be, you
CONAN: This one dog, Kofi, is turned into a killer. He's put into the pit
fight against other dogs. Now I know a lot of people have been upset by the
dog-fighting scenes. And I have to say that I was pretty relieved when at
end of the picture I did see the statement on the film that no animals were
harmed in the making of the picture.
Mr. INARRITU: Yeah. I think--you know, it's not a movie about that, but
it's only like 18 seconds of real explicit dog fight. That is in one of the
context of one of the stories of one of the characters. So it's a little
but obviously is very high impact. I really tried to take out the
way of how Disney movies sometimes put the dog like that, or immediately
that they are playing.
When we shoot this, we take care a lot. I love dogs. I have a dog. I
maybe worse the actors than the animals. But what I can assure you is that
any dog was harmed--you know, the dogs was treated very good. They were
playing and we put, like, kind of a little fish line, like invisible
(unintelligible), and they were playing. But with the handheld camera and
(unintelligible) design, you're sort of there. And I was really trying to
make the buildup of the scene very stressful. For when this happens in
of the eyes of the audience, they jump like in a horror film. But the
were really well treated, you know.
CONAN: It's interesting there's a lot of violence in your picture, but that
most of the attention is focused on this very brief dog-fighting sequence
not on the violence that happens to the people.
Mr. INARRITU: Yeah, I think it's not a violent movie. I think it's an
intense movie. Mexico City is a 21 million city--people living here. It's
anthropological experiment. So it's very intense. So I think, you know,
more violent just to watch the news in the night or to read the newspaper,
know. I think it's basically a very entertaining film with three love
with people that love and learn how to love.
But I don't think it's the kind of violence, you know, that is used as
entertainment--people that kill people and laugh and make a punch line and
sleep with the most beautiful girl in the night. I think I tried to really
explore the violence in the way that I have lived in my own city. I have
victim of that, and I tried to take out the frivolous part of the violence.
Mr. INARRITU: I think it's a violence with a consequence, but a very
consequence in the human beings.
CONAN: Mexico City is almost a character in this movie.
Mr. INARRITU: Well, if you notice, you never can recognize the city in the
film, you know. I never used this kind of setup, kind of scenes when you
CONAN: There's no picture postcard shots.
Mr. INARRITU: Exactly! But I think more than you can see the city, I think
you can smell the city. And I was really obsessed about that. I think a
film should smell, too. So I think the people really can recognize the city
by the smell or the textures and the walls and the people, you know. That's
what I was trying to get at. These stories can happen in any city in the
world, you know.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And when did you come to the realization that the car crash
was going to be the linchpin, the thing that held the film together?
Mr. INARRITU: Always. Always. The car crash was always, you know, the
image for us as the metaphor of the vulnerability, or how fragile the human
beings are, you know. An accident can happen to anybody, even to Lady Di
(pronounced dee) that die in a car crash, you know, to anybody, Mexicans,
Americans, handsome, kings, servants. It's something that can happen and
change the life for everybody. So that main point, the car crash, always
like, in the center of this universe and was like a big bang that explodes
affects to all the planets, you know.
CONAN: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is on the line with us from Mexico City.
We're talking about his movie "Amores Perros." Tell us a little bit about
yourself. Did you grow up in Mexico City?
Mr. INARRITU: Yes, I have been living here all my life. Thirty-seven years
I have been living here. And basically, I came from radio as a deejay in a
radio station, rock 'n' roll radio station. And then I became a creative
director. I became a promoter and producer of rock concerts, big rock
concerts, and then, creative director--writing and directing ideas for TV
commercials. And basically--and then I studied two years of theater.
CONAN: Uh-huh. TV commercials.
Mr. INARRITU: And basically...
CONAN: Is that basically where you learned the craft that you use now?
Mr. INARRITU: Exactly. I think the craft I learned in that, I think. You
know, the TV commercial sometimes give you a lot of vices, bad vices, bad
things. But at the same time, you view a world--and I always use the
advertising commercial as, you know, rehearsals and exercises for going to
feature films. So I always was training with that. So the ability to
synthesize the stories is a very good exercise in the commercial, I think.
And you learn a lot about the skills, lens, you know, techniques, you know,
genres. So you can play a lot as you learn.
CONAN: You said you started out with the idea of learning what you needed
do to make feature films. The Mexican film industry has been a sleepy place
in recent years. For a long time, it was controlled by a government board
you had to get permission to go make a movie.
Mr. INARRITU: Yeah, it was very hard to make films in Mexico in the
last--you know, the last 20 years, I think. The last three years, it's
better. There are more private investors. The audience--there are more
theaters in the cities. People are more--you know, the Mexican audience
more Mexican films, you know. So it's been changing. It has been a little
change, but it's not radical. I think it will take five, 10 years maybe to
get us an industry, you know. But it's getting better, I think, right now.
Yeah, but it was--it used to be very hard.
CONAN: Is there an international Hispanic market? I mean, does "Amores
Perros" translate perfectly and play well in Spain and Argentina?
Mr. INARRITU: Yeah. I think this film play well. Normally, it's not a
rule. Normally, it's very hard that an Argentinean film or a Mexican film
a Spanish film play well in other countries, even when they speak Spanish.
It's hard. This movie make well. It's not a mainstream hit, you know...
Mr. INARRITU: ...but made very good box office, I think. And that's--I
think that's the only exit, the only way that we can gain and we can begin
make better films, I think, if we find a way to make an international
market, I think. But it's happening. It's beginning to happen, I think,
it's very hard. Because we are different cultures, you know.
Mr. INARRITU: Even when we speak Spanish, we are very, very different
CONAN: My guest is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the director of the new
"Amores Perros." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: Now more with Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
What is the origin of this passion that you have for making movies? Who are
the people who influenced and inspired you?
Mr. INARRITU: I can tell you that basically I was thinking that and I think
was more inspired by musicians than filmmakers, you know?
Mr. INARRITU: I can tell you that I'm more inspired, you know, in Genesis,
the English rock band, in the beginning with Peter Gabriel, and Yes and Led
Zeppelin and Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd and The Who. That kind of bands
really, really created in myself a conscious of about--because, you know, in
the beginning of all these bands, they were playing music but it was more
music. It was an attitude, a way of life, a concept. They play, like, you
know, these big albums that have concepts, a big story. So I always was
real interested. And when I heard the music, I always, you know, make
in my mind. So that was the beginning of my real need to tell stories in
image, but the music really, you know, was the beginning of everything, I
CONAN: It's interesting, because reading the critics who wrote about your
film, most of them loved it but a lot of them made, say, you know, here's a
bow to Quentin Tarantino and here's a nod to Luis Bunuel.
Mr. INARRITU: It's very funny. Yeah, I don't know why the critics always
has to refer a film to another film, you know. But I don't think I have
nothing to do with Tarantino, you know. I think that violence of Tarantino
used in a way that I hate, because he's entertaining violence. And I think
it's very frivolous. You know, it's frivolous, you know? I hate that kind
a statement that you can kill people and laugh. For me, that have lived in
violent city, there's nothing to laugh about violence, so I cannot use that
for entertaining people in a very ironic, you know, way. And I think that
Tarantino's a very talented director, but the statement that he has with the
violence, I cannot take. And I think that this film doesn't have to do
nothing with Tarantino, you know. He doesn't invent the three stories in
film. It was used by Kurasawa in '51, you know, and literature inspired by
William Faulkner in "The Sound and the Fury." That is a novel that played
with that fragmented time, you know. So I don't think there's something
can relate for me to that kind of films.
CONAN: Now you were a rock 'n' roll disc jockey. Did that play a role in
picking the music for this picture?
Mr. INARRITU: Yeah, I think my mind--I'm a frustrated musician. I always
want to make--to be a musician, so I play the guitar, I have a rock band
and everything, but I don't know, suddenly the radio crossed my life and
everything happened. But my way of thinking so is very musical and I think
the rhythm is something very important for a movie or for a novel or for
anything, rhythm. So I always think very musical. When I was directing, I
was directing with music and the music that I take--some of the songs that I
take for this film was very important when I was playing in the radio, you
know, when I was a deejay.
CONAN: What songs in particular, or what artists in particular, were
important that you included in the movie?
Mr. INARRITU: Well, I think there's a great Mexican, Argentinean and
band. Mexican is Kafetakuva(ph). That is great, great, great Mexican rock
band. Control Machete, that is another very classic and contemporary,
important rock Mexican band. I think the soundtrack is very--it's
because it's a double soundtrack. In some there is the score and another is
another song that was composed after the film was done, so it's a good
compilation of what is happening in the Spanish rock 'n' roll, I think.
CONAN: And there's also a bow to your old passions about English rock bands
and The Hollies--"Long, Cool Woman in a Black Dress."
Mr. INARRITU: Exactly. To tell you the truth, my idea in the first--when I
was editing the film, I did that scene with Creedence Clearwater Revival.
CONAN: Creedence Clearwater, yes.
Mr. INARRITU: Exactly. So I did a song with that but, you know, the rights
was really, really, really expensive, so in the end I used The Hollies,
I like. But I prefer--and I was trying to use, you know, Jimi Hendrix, but
was very expensive. So The Hollies was my last choice, to tell you the
But I like it. I think it has to do something with that era, with that
context of this character, I think.
CONAN: One of the amazing things about this picture is that, for an
who's not familiar with any of these actors, it's almost like this film
onto the scene fully grown, like Athena coming from the head of Zeus. It's
these very, very accomplished performers that we've never seen before.
Mr. INARRITU: Yeah, I tried to use, you know--I think--I tried to use new
actors. Mostly of the Mexican actors, there are not known in the United
States, but even in Mexico they are not well known. Emilio Echevarria, El
Chivo, The Goat, is a very well-known theater actor and the guy, Octavio, is
the first story, this young man, that is an amazing actor. He's a theater
actor. He was taught in England. And basically all of the actors are
actors, which I love because they have a very incredible discipline. You
know, they have other techniques, I think.
CONAN: But you went to the theater as opposed to using people who have
on television or people that you have used in commercials.
Mr. INARRITU: Exactly. Exactly. Some of them I have used in commercials,
too. The first guy, Octavio, I used him in commercials. I fall in love
this guy. I say, `When I make a film with a young guy, I will make a film
with this guy,' you know. And some of them were in plays and I went to the
plays and I, you know, respect them a lot. I really love actors. I think
is one of my favorite things, to make a film. You know, the best part of
trip is, you know, the shooting and to work with actors for me. I enjoy a
CONAN: That's the most fun?
Mr. INARRITU: For me, yes. Yeah, for me, shooting the film is the most
you know, because of--you know, when you are dreaming and you are developing
and you are writing, you are, you know--it's a little anxious. But when you
already have the idea and you begin to put that in a set, you have a camera
and two actors that really put the spirit and the flesh in what the little
lyrics are saying, it's amazing, like magic. That's what this film's about,
you know, it's magic; people with real feelings, you know. It's something
magical. I really--I love that part of the process, I think.
CONAN: Later on in the production process, I understand that you also had
some help. Some colleagues who also work in the Mexican film business came
to work on the film with you.
Mr. INARRITU: Yeah. I think in the editing process, when I was like six
months in my home editing, trying to put--so I had my first cut and I knew
that I had to take out like 10, 15, I don't know, more minutes. But I did
CONAN: Excruciating, those last cuts.
Mr. INARRITU: Exactly. So Guillermo del Toro, who direct "Mimic," which
is direct ...(unintelligible) in Czechoslovakia, is a Mexican director, is a
friend of mine. So he came to my house and--well, I met him by telephone
I didn't meet him by--you know, personally. So he arrived. He's a fab guy.
He's very funny, talented, fab guy that arrive to my home, stay three days,
ate all my refrigerator. We laugh a lot. We discuss a lot. We work a lot
without sleep three days, and he helped me really to find out where these 10
minutes should go out, so I appreciate that a lot. And, you know, when we
were developing the script, you know, I have some reading with some other
directors, Alfonso Cuaron, who directed "Little Princess" and "Great
Expectations," and he helped me a lot to find, you know, some mistakes in
script and some, you know--so that's a very good process, I think. I think
was very helpful to find, you know, your friends, directors that you admire,
that helps you in little details that really change all the things, I think.
CONAN: What are you working on now?
Mr. INARRITU: I'm working on another story with the same screenwriter from
"Amores Perros" that is called Guillermo Arriaga. We are writing--we are
developing; we have like one year and a half developing this script. We
the first draft of this script that is called "21 Grams."
CONAN: It's not a drug picture, is it?
Mr. INARRITU: No. No, no. It's--"21 Grams" is the weight of the soul.
you die, when everybody dies, immediately you lose 21 grams. So it's the
weight of life, you know, in some way. So it's again--it's a very painful
story but at the same time it has a lot of hope, a lot of humanity. I'm
interested in, as in "Amores Perros," you know, real stories with characters
that really, you know, can learn a lot through a painful process and be
at the end, you know. I don't like hard and strong characters that can keep
people in a smile and, you know, I cannot relate with that kind of people.
relate with weak people. I feel that I am weak as a human being, I'm
vulnerable, so I like those kind of characters, so this story's about that,
how fragile we are and--but there's a lot of hope at the end. And it's
about--I'm working--I'm reading some stuff too, I think.
CONAN: Well, all we can do is wish you the best of luck.
Mr. INARRITU: No, thank you very much. Thank you very much and thank you
the interest and I'm glad that you like "Amores Perros."
CONAN: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. "Amores Perros" is playing in theaters
around the country.
Now let's hear a song from the soundtrack. This is "Si Senor," by Control
Machete. I'm Neal Conan. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Si Senor" sung in Spanish)
CONAN: Coming up, an intimate portrait of Paul Robeson. We talk with Paul
Robeson Jr. about how he wants his father to be understood. That's the
subject of his new biography, "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Paul Robeson Jr. talks about his father's rise in
show business, and what it was like growing up as the son of a
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan, filling in for Terry Gross.
(Soundbite from "Othello")
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Sr.: (As Othello) Soft, you! A word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know it. No more of that. I
pray you in your letters, when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak
me as I am; nothing extenuate, nor sit down aught in malice.
CONAN: The final speech of Othello and the magnificent voice of Paul
Shakespeare's Moor was perhaps his most famous role, but Robeson the actor
also remembered as the personification of Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones,"
and he stopped the show when he sang "Old Man River" in "Showboat." Paul
Robeson was a renowned concert performer, too, who based his repertoire in
spirituals, but came to include a wide range of folk and classical music; he
was one of the great artists of the 20th century and among the most
Paul Robeson Jr. has written a biography of his famous father, called "The
Undiscovered Paul Robeson." This volume covers the period from his birth in
1898 to 1939. It reminds us that he first came to national attention as an
athlete. Paul Robeson was an All-American end for Rutgers College, maybe
best football player in the country in 1917 and 1918. Here's a reading from
the book that describes how he had to overcome the racism of his own
before he could even make the varsity.
(Soundbite of reading from "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson")
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr. (Author, "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson"): `He had
a clean, hard tackle and momentarily lay face down, with his arms
outstretched, to catch his breath. Just then, passing by on his way back to
the huddle, a varsity halfback named Frank Kelly deliberately stomped on the
fingers of Paul's right hand. The bones didn't break, but the pain was
excruciating. Enraged even more by the insult than by his pain, Paul leapt
his feet. But he did not attack Kelly. Instead, he harnessed the immense
energy of his anger and coiled his body in preparation for the next play.
his mind, he focused on avenging an insult not just of himself, but to the
entire black race.'
`The next play was run directly at him, with Kelly carrying the ball. Paul
uncoiled, hurling aside the blockers, and drove his shoulder into the
onrushing Kelly with a thump heard across the practice field. Then, in a
single coordinated motion, he planted his feet widely, wrapped his arms
tightly around Kelly and with an explosive effort, heaved Kelly up over his
head. He was in full control of his rage, but only he knew that. His
murderous body language and facial expression frightened all the onlookers,
who feared he might kill Kelly. Coach Sanford screamed the first thing that
came into his mind: "Robeson, you're on the varsity!" Paul silently
the terrified halfback to the ground, and stalked off the field, holding his
`He recalled this incident as a symbol of the savagery of America's popular
culture. At the time, he experienced a liberating revelation. It was as if
he had used the energy of his rage to convince a group of hostile white men
that he might kill at least one of them in self-defense if they attacked
For the first time in his life, he had cast off his father's cautionary
strictures about never angering white people. At last he had been able to
savor the heady feeling of siding with his rebellious brother, Reed. And
that was a defining moment which he repeated to me over and over: not
to die, and in the end, if you have to, to save your life, not afraid to
CONAN: You talked about his father's teachings. His father a minister in
Princeton, New Jersey, who later lost his job as a result of politics in
Princeton and racism and then, finally, got another pastorate; this time in
the AME Zion church. But he insisted that Paul--and I'm quoting you here,
"He insisted that Paul must never appear to be challenging the claim of
superiority. `Climb up, if you can,' he would say, `But always show you are
grateful. Above all, do nothing to give them cause to fear you.'" Was this
an expression of someone who was, himself, vastly more familiar with slavery
and someone who was experiencing, at that very time, the rash of lynchings
throughout the country?
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: That's absolutely correct. But from generation to
generation, there are those who, like my grandfather, Paul's father, took
tact and, as a people, we have to take that tact in order to survive. But
there always have been those who, at the right time and the right place,
defied white superiority. There's not only Frederick Douglass. After all,
there was Nat Turner. And my father was a little bit Nat Turner. There's a
place and a time. So at that moment was the first time in his life that he
went beyond his father's limitations and he never went back; that is,
metaphorically, not literally, of course. He never went back to this fear
`I can't go right against the system.' From then on, when he felt it was
right time, was capable to conquer both fear and anger and, in a disciplined
way, challenge the whole scheme of things.
CONAN: Despite his experience of racism in that one incident you told us
about, it was hardly the only one. He was regarded as apolitical when he
first living in Harlem. But you take care to point out that in those early
years, it wasn't that he was not paying attention, he was listening to
like W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. Listening and learning, do you think?
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: Learning and choosing. For example, philosophically,
he identified with W.E.B. DuBois. He rejected outright the nationalism of
Garvey. And he rejected outright the assimilationist views of James Weldon
Johnson and subsequent assimilationists. So he was making choices at the
time. And as an artist, he felt, in the '20s certainly, and into the early
'30s, the way to make his point was through culture and not through
debate. He was very political if you think of culture as political. He
redefined the black male image, for example, in the theater from a
to a human being. He made the spiritual an accepted art form in America and
he embodied the traditions of the black working class as distinct from the
traditions of the black middle class, entrepreneurial class. So he, even
then, culturally speaking, was engaging in what a Marxist might call the
struggle, only not explicitly. He felt--and besides, he was not a movement
person. He was an inspirer. He wasn't an organizational person, let's say,
like Martin Luther King. He came to sing at meetings, not to make speeches.
It seems like a contradiction, but it isn't, when you think about it.
CONAN: Paul Robeson Jr. is the author of "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson,"
first of what will be a two-volume biography. We're going to take a short
break now. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: My guest is Paul Robeson Jr. His new biography of his famous father
is "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson." It's subtitled "An Artist's Journey:
1898 to 1939."
As a young man still studying law at Columbia University, Paul Robeson took
his first roles on stage and found his voice singing spirituals.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Sr.: (Singing) Deep river, my home is over Jordan. Deep
river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground. Deep river...
CONAN: "Deep River," recorded in 1926, sung by Paul Robeson, with his
long-time accompanist and collaborator, Lawrence Brown, on piano.
Paul Robeson Jr., this was in the middle of the jazz age. Weren't
spirituals more than a little bit out of fashion?
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: Indeed, they were, specifically among black people,
certainly among the black middle class, who felt you were supposed to be
singing leader and classical things like all the other European concert
singers to prove that you can do this. `These are just sort of folk songs.
It's too crude. You shouldn't be doing that, Paul. It's embarrassing.'
CONAN: You start...
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: And it's fascinating that he converted, in his first
concert tour, the black middle class to reaccept, to re-enter their own
culture and identify, once again, with the spirituals, because he sang them
with such originality, as they were meant to be sung. He sort of reclaimed
important part of American culture.
CONAN: He was also criticized by some black performers who said he was
this the wrong way. He wasn't listening to Debussy when he was singing
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: That's correct. And he simply said, `This is an
original folk art, which is as important artistically as Bach, Debussy or
other music' and pointed out that the greatest composers, including Bach,
Debussy and Mozart and many others, used folk themes and folk music as the
basis for their, quote, "more sophisticated music."
CONAN: Paul Robeson had a lot of trouble throughout this part of his
being torn between the attractions of the commercial world. And he appeared
for a while in the great musical review written by Eubie Blake and Noble
Sissle, "Shuffle Along," for example. This is not something you associate
with Paul Robeson.
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: Well, that's very much a significant point. His
career was the conflict of remaining pure to his cultural traditions and
getting on the performing artists' radar screen in the country. If you've
no audience, you might as well be singing on the street corner. So that was
an immense conflict. What does one do? Well, he made the obvious
in order to get on the map. He did "Shuffle Along" as a means for not only
making money, but getting on the radar screen, so to speak. His point was
that where did he want to go? Did he want to continue to be a big star in
Vaudeville and go on to musical shows and what not or did he want to go into
the classical theater and the classical concert stage? He chose the latter
and used the former on his way to get his foot in the door.
His point was, overall, when he looked back--it's not so much the
you make on the way--and he made many. I mean, he sang all kinds of popular
songs, including some darky songs, `Momma's little baby loves shortnin
and things like that, as well as "Deep River" in order to become a popular
recording artist. Then he had a huge audience to speak to. If he hadn't,
he'd have had no audience. So he was not at all apologetic about that, even
when he was criticized quite sharply in the late '20s--early '20s, for that
matter, and in the '30s by both the left and the more militant wing of the
civil rights movement, and especially by the nationalists. He shrugged that
off. He said, `You know, you've got to get from here to there in steps.'
point was when you become powerful, when you have this huge audience, then
have an obligation to use it for the good and not do this garbage anymore.
CONAN: One role he did not take--and this almost comes to a shock. You
associate the role so much with Paul Robeson, it's almost a shock to realize
he was not in the original cast of "Showboat."
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: Correct. Because he didn't like the lyrics and he
trying to get out of it. But then I came along. I was born in 1927. He
searched around. He had to make some money, so he took the role when it
opened in London and swallowed his pride and sang the lyrics, although he
it in a different way than it was originally written. He brought his own
to it, so to speak. And he became an instant star. So that's an example of
what I'm saying.
Mother, by the way, who was very shrewd in these areas and was a great help
him in his early career, said, `Look, take the doggone part, sing it in the
way it was.' And he turned it down. `No. I'm not going to do that.'
on, I quote him in the letter saying to mother, "You were absolutely right.
was a fool not to do some of this stuff." But, fortunately, he was very
and got the role in London. Of course, the rest is history.
CONAN: One of the London critics--Paul Robeson had already appeared on
in London before this--noted that Robeson not only stole the show, but
somehow, the production had been contrived to give this enormous stage
presence a non-speaking part.
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: Dad was amazingly adept and skillful at using his
which is an athlete's body, on stage. And I don't think people are too
of that dimension of his acting. And part of his training, by the way, as I
describe in the book, was--his first film was a film made by a black
named Oscar Micheaux called "Body and Soul," which was a silent film in
my father had to play two roles and the first film he'd ever done. And he
couldn't use his voice. It was silent. So he had to learn to act. And
was really the crucible in which he learned how to use his body and facial
expressions as an actor and not rely on his voice.
CONAN: For some people, your father's legacy will always be tainted by his
association with the Soviet Union, a place he never publicly criticized.
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: Absolutely right and...
CONAN: In the 1930s, even as they're approaching the period of this
the 1930s, some of the excesses, if you will, of the Soviet system had
certainly come to light.
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: Call them crimes, which they were.
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: I mean, excesses is a sign of a euphemism. What I do
in the book is, through his own words, demonstrate, once and for all, that
there's no way anyone can say that he didn't know what was happening during
the purges in the Soviet Union or what kind of person Stalin was. He knew
chapter and verse. I knew, as a 10-year-old, going to school with the
children of the people being purged. So even a 10-year-old is not blind and
deaf. So whatever anybody wants to say, he knew what was going on in the
1930s in the Soviet Union under Stalin; the crimes, not just the excesses.
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: He never criticized that, then or later. So the only
question is why not?
CONAN: Here you go.
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: Now maybe the easiest way is just to read a brief
excerpt from the preface, where I deal with that.
`The media-nurtured myth that his political persecution stemmed from a love
affair with communism or that he was duped by Russian or American Communists
has always been aimed at obfuscating his dedication to the goal of immediate
and full freedom for his people. The truth is that my father was never a
Communist, nor did he ever seriously contemplate joining the Communist
His defense of the Soviet Union and his refusal to abandon his Communist
friends did not stem from a fascination with left-wing ideology or from
personal pride. Rather, these decisions were based on his love of Russian
culture and his conviction that the Soviet Union and Communists, in general,
were the most reliable opponents of Nazism, colonialism and racism.'
And I might add that Communists in the United States and elsewhere, in his
view, were the best allies of African-Americans. And that was proven
throughout history. So that in terms of how you behave, as any
African-American understood that then and understands it now, you don't
criticize your allies when you're fighting your enemy. And, for him, the
right wing of the United States, the system and the culture developed in the
South with slavery and the aftermath, was the worst enemy of progressive
mankind and of black people specifically outside of Hitler's Nazis. And
were cousins, if not the brothers, of Hitler's Nazis. He believed it. I
think history has proved it. And I believe it. There are a lot of people
that that upsets on the left, never mind on the right. But that is an
African-American attitude, based on the history of slavery and racism in the
US, more than, quote, "a left-wing attitude."
CONAN: Paul Robeson Jr. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: My guest is Paul Robeson Jr. He's the author of a new book, "The
Undiscovered Paul Robeson," the first of a two-volume biography of his
Tell us the--growing up as the son of a famous man is not the easiest thing
the world. This couldn't have been--well, by no stretch of the imagination,
did you have anything approaching what anybody would call a normal
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: No. You're quite right about that. But one thing
tell you, it certainly was not dull. It certainly was not dull. I mean, it
was one hell of a trip, in one sense. Yes, there was--I missed him a lot
I was a little kid because he wasn't around much. He was on tour. I was
being taken care of by my grandmother.
CONAN: It's interesting. You say your first memory of your father is, in
fact, his voice coming out of a Victrola.
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: Exactly. And I guess the next one was, one day--I
have been, I don't know--maybe I was barely two years old. But, anyway, I
remember vaguely even today, one day that the voice came from up there
somewhere above my head. It wasn't the usual place and there's this huge
there, you know, the size 14. And, you know, at a two-year-old level, I put
it together. `Oh, hey, that's the real one.' And my only vague memory is
just this wonderful sound of this deep, gentle voice and these huge hands,
which were very gentle. And then this big smile and the big eyes with a lot
of wh--this wonderful, benevolent image and feeling. So there was a great
feeling of security. At the same time, I would get pretty angry at him as a
little kid. He was never around, you know. And little kids--`My father--I
own him. Who the heck is the Prince of Wales or Nehru or somebody? Hell,
number one, here, Dad. What'...
CONAN: And he's standing--the universe centers right here.
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: Right. Right. So he was a very fun guy to be
CONAN: The experience of being separated that much from your parents, you
must have understood that they were special and that, I guess, in a way, you
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: That's true, but one thing he gave me is a sense of
myself. And looking back over his entire lifetime, his point was, `Do
whatever you want to do. Don't copy anybody else and especially don't copy
me.' He, of course--he had a great sense of humor, so he said, `Well, you
know, if you want to sing and act, great, but you're not going to beat me at
Othello or "Old Man River." Do something, you know, but don't try to beat
at that.' So he always gave, not just me, but other people a sense of
themselves. He was, in that sense, an emotional empowerer rather than sort
an awe-inspiring suppressor, as many, quote, "great," unquote, people are.
CONAN: You did, eventually, follow his steps on to the football field, at
least. You must have had many temptations to try to go on stage or sing.
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: No. I never wanted any part of that. I mean, the
price he paid for being an artist and a public figure--the personal price he
paid, in terms of giving up a personal life, I was never ready to do for any
reason, even political. And, in some ways, as an organizational political
person, I was more political than he. But I wasn't about to sacrifice my
personal life in the way he had to to do what he did. I guess it was from,
you know, seeing the price that the family paid, not just him, but
CONAN: How did that manifest itself?
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr: Well, he had to live up to a living legend. And that
he had to live up to a public which expected him to be bigger than life.
There is no such thing as bigger than life, as he would impress upon me
So that's an immense burden. And he said when he retired and became--people
said, `Well, he's a recluse.' No. He had had enough of being a public
and he wasn't about to be someone's wise elder and some kind of living icon.
He'd done his job. He'd finished. And he wasn't about to give up one
of his private life after his retirement. So I remember him saying, when he
was about 60, `You know, I hope I don't live to be an old man. I have a
attack or something and go quickly because I wouldn't know how to be an old
man after my public career is gone because nobody would accept me as just a
person who's not some kind of icon.' So, in a sense, he sacrificed being
to be old. I wasn't willing to do that. Very few people--you see, only
people who have a divine mission like a Robeson or a king or a latter-day
Malcolm or a Frederick Douglass or a Nat Turner--I'm not quite up to that.
don't think--very few people are.
CONAN: Paul Robeson Jr., thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Jr.: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Paul Robeson Jr. is the author of "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson."
CONAN: For Terry Gross, I'm Neal Conan.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. PAUL ROBESON Sr.: (Singing) ...there for me. And I shall hear, though
soft you tread upon me. And all my grief will warmer, sweeter be. For you
will bend and tell me that you love me. And I shall sleep in peace until
come to me.
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