The Emperor Jones is a 1933 American pre-Code film adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play of the same title, was made outside of the Hollywood studio system, financed with private money from neophyte wealthy producers, and directed by iconoclast Dudley Murphy, who had sought O’Neill’s permission to film the play since its 1924 production in New York. He cast Paul Robeson in his first film role, Dudley Digges, Frank H. Wilson, and Fredi Washington. The screenplay was written by DuBose Heyward and filmed at Kaufman Astoria Studios with the beach scene shot at Jones beach Long Beach, New York. Robeson starred in the O’Neill play on stage, both in the United States and England, a role that had helped launch his career.
The film is based rather loosely on O’Neil’s play, but adds an entire backstory before O’Neill’s actual play begins, and includes several new characters that do not appear in it (such as Jones’ wife, and a friendly priest who advises him to give up his evil ways). Some people considered the movie to be just a vehicle for displaying Robeson’s famous musical talent (he sings a number of times in the film). However, the film does provide what may be Robeson’s greatest dramatic performance in a movie, considered by many to be worthy of an Oscar nomination that it did not receive.
In the film version, the opening shots are of an African ritual dance. Some critics are quick to assess the opening as representative of the “primitive” black world to which Brutus Jones will eventually revert. However, more scholarly reviews of the film understand the complexities of the allusion to and comparison between the roots of the African-American church and the rhythmic chanting often seen in African religious practices. As discussed further, below, its director, Dudley Nichols, had co-directed Ballet Mecanique and other musically-based experimental films. Having just spent several years in Hollywood, he now craved the freedom to use musical forms as way of translating O’Neill’s experimentation on stage into a film form. Paul Robeson was already a musical star, and would go on to study traditional African music and dance while on location in Nigeria and with scholars in London.
A quick dissolve takes us into a Baptist church in the American South, where the dancing of the congregation presents an image that argues for a continuity between the “savage” Africans and the ring-shout Baptists. Such suggestive editing may be the kind of element that causes viewers to suspect the film of racism.
Similarly, the film makes copious use of the word “nigger”, as did O’Neill’s original play. African Americans criticized O’Neill’s language at the time, so its preservation and expansion in the film present another cause for critique. In fact, in the original production in 1920, the actor playing Jones, Charles Sidney Gilpin, a leading man in the all-African American Lafayette players, objected to the use of the word “nigger” to playwright Eugene O’Neill and began substituting “Negro” in the Provincetown Players premiere and then as it went on tour for two years in the States. In this, he reflected the African-American community’s problematic relationship with the play — at a time when minstrel shows were still popular and only white men could play Othello.
O’Neill, an ex-sailor who freely used offensive epithets, had based the character, down to some specific traits and use of language, on an African-American friend from the New England waterfront, and felt the use of the word was dramatically justified. They could not come to a reconciliation and O’Neill gave the part to the much younger and then-unknown Paul Robeson for the 1924 New York revival and then its London premiere, both of which launched Robeson as the first black leading man of heretofore white American and British theater. Given Robeson’s subsequent career as a Civil Rights activist, his character using the term so frequently in regard to other blacks seems shocking today, but Robeson would not have had his impact on civil rights had he never played this role. It made him a star, in a way that virtually no other part in the 1920s and ’30s could have done; with its powerful visions of a slave ship and being sold at auction, the role of Brutus Jones had a scope and a reality that no American play had had for a black man before. Robeson often struggled with the inherent racist and imperialist limits of what few leading man roles there were for a black actor then and ran into criticism at the time because of it (see Sanders of the River, a 1935 film set in Nigeria).
At a Baptist prayer meeting, the preacher leads a prayer for Brutus Jones, who has just been hired as a Pullman Porter, a job that served the upward mobility of thousands of African-American men in the first half of the 20th century. Jones proudly shows off his uniform to his girlfriend Dolly (and the film’s audience, setting up the contrast with the later scenes in which “the Emperor Jones” parades around in overdone military garb) before joining the congregation for a spiritual. But Jones is quickly corrupted by the lures of the big city, taking up with fast women and gamblers. One boisterous crap game leads to a fight in which he inadvertently stabs Jeff, the man who had introduced him to the fast-life and from whom he had stolen the affections of the beautiful Undine (played by Fredi Washington).
Jones was imprisoned and sent to do hard labor. (A stint on the chain gang allows the film its first opportunity to show Robeson without his shirt on, an exposure of male nudity unusual for 1933 and certainly for a black actor. Here and later the director plays on Robeson’s sexual power and, implicitly, on cultural stereotypes about the libidinal power of black men.) Jones escapes the convict’s life after striking a white guard who was torturing and beating another prisoner. Making his way home, he briefly receives the assistance of his girlfriend Dolly before taking a job stoking coal on a steamer headed for the Caribbean. One day, he catches sight of a remote island and jumps ship, swimming to the island.
The island is under the crude rule of a top-hatted black despot who receives merchandise from Smithers, the dilapidated white colonial merchant who is the sole Caucasian on the island. Jones rises to become Smithers’ partner and eventually “Emperor”. He dethrones his predecessor with a trick that allows him to survive what appears to be a fusillade of bullets, creating the myth that he can only be slain by a silver one. Jones’s rule of the island involves increasing taxes on the poor natives and pocketing the proceeds.
The highlight is a twelve-minute spoken monologue taken directly from O’Neill’s play, in which Brutus Jones (Robeson), hunted by natives in revolt, flees through the jungle and slowly disintegrates psychologically, becoming a shrieking hysteric who runs right into the path of his pursuers. This section was written as a nearly autobiographical account by O’Neill, who had gone off to Honduras the year after his graduation from Princeton and gotten hopelessly lost in the jungle, resulting in hallucinatory fears.
By Paul Robeson (YouTube: vgRHF1ROtSM) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons