Steve McQueen, the Oscar-winning director of Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, has confirmed that his next project will be a biopic of the American actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson.

Steve McQueenSteve McQueen is to make a biopic about activist and musician Paul Robeson

"His life and legacy was the film I wanted to make the second after Hunger," McQueen said, referring to his debut movie starring Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands. "But I didn't have the power, I didn't have the juice."

Speaking on-stage at New York's Hidden Heroes awards, McQueen said he first discovered Robeson at the age of 14, reading books, articles and cuttings.

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The movie will appeal to UK audiences given Robeson's unlikely connection with the Welsh labour politician Aneurin Bevan, for whom the musician recorded a number of radio concerts to support the miners.

"It was about this black guy who was in Wales and was singing with these miners," remembered McQueen. "I was about 14 years old, and not knowing who Paul Robeson was, this black American in Wales, it seemed strange. So then, of course, I just found out that this man was an incredible human being."

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Robeson's life story certainly provides plenty of material for McQueen. The son of an escaped slave, Robeson abandoned a legal career after experiencing severe racist in the workplace. Turning to a career in music, Robeson enjoyed worldwide fame and began campaigning internationally against racism and social injustice, performing for soldiers in the Spanish civil war, at anti-Nazi demonstrations and in South Wales for unemployed miners. 

Robeson's friend Harry Belafonte is involved in McQueen's forthcoming movie.

"We get on like a house on fire," McQueen told the Guardian. "I never thought I'd make a new friend, and a man who is 87 years old but I'm very happy, he's a beautiful man."

It is not yet known who will play Robeson.