Directed by Dudley Murphy
The United States of America
On April 9, 1998, a worldwide celebration took place. The cause for the international jubilation was the birthday centenary of a man named Paul Robeson. A singer, athlete, writer, lawyer, actor, and tireless activist for social justice, Paul Robeson would go down as one of the most important and influential African-Americans in history. On his aforementioned birthday, he was honored with art exhibitions, documentaries, and even a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. This was a man who defied simple definitions. As a singer, he popularized Negro spirituals to a wide audience. As a stage actor, he was the first black actor of the 20th century to perform the leading role of Othello on Broadway. As a film actor, he fought studios and directors for roles that portrayed African-Americans with dignity and respect. And yet, despite all of his contributions, he has virtually disappeared from the American consciousness. This largely has to do with the fact that he was a victim of the Red Scare because he spoke out against fascism and racism in the US. As a result, the US government and media almost completely wiped him from the public memory. But his legacy remains as one of the great pioneers of stage and screen and an invaluable figure in the development of social equality and justice for all mankind.
So how can we do his legacy justice? As a film aficionado, the best that I can do is to bring attention to his great work in the cinema. Robeson was involved in 16 films from 1925 to 1954. Many of these films were British productions, as Robeson moved to England in the late 1920s with his wife. From the very beginning his films were radically charged. His first surviving film, Body and Soul (1924), was a silent American production where Robeson played a preacher with a split personality. His second was an experimental film shot in Switzerland entitled Borderline (1930) which dealt with an interracial affair in a small European village. But it is his next film that I want to bring attention to. An incredible story about a man who made himself a king, The Emperor Jones (1933) would go down as one of Robeson’s most iconic, and powerful, roles.
The film is an adaptation of the play by the same name by Eugene O’Neill. It originally opened on Broadway on November 1, 1920 where it ran for 204 performances. It has an important place in theatrical history as its leading role was performed by Charles Gilpin. This was the first time that an important black role was played by a black man and not a white man in black-face. So maybe it was destiny that Robeson would eventually play the character in the 1925 revival.
The play follows a man named Brutus Jones who kills a man, goes to prison, escapes, flees to a Caribbean island, and declares himself the emperor. It is mostly told in flashback as he flees through a forest trying to escape his former subjects who rose up against him. For the film adaptation, about half an hour of original material was added to Brutus’ back-story in order to flesh out his character. Of course, this resulted in the movie slightly deviating from the original story. In his autobiography, Robeson even admitted that he regretted making the film because it was so different from the play. But for the audience, the additional material creates a much clearer portrait of the central character and makes his rise and fall as emperor even more interesting.
The opening shots of the film present the audience with an African ritual dance which dissolves into a Baptist Church deep in the American South. It has been suggested that this comparison is an act of racism on the part of the filmmaker, but I do not buy that. I see it as a celebration of black culture and its natural progression into American society. But that’s just my interpretation. In any case, we find Robeson being blessed by his congregation as he gets ready to depart for his job as a Pullman Porter. Since that job helped thousands of African-Americans climb the social ladder in the first half of the Twentieth Century, the news is cause for celebration. As his first talkie, it is here that we hear Robeson’s legendary bass-baritone voice boom across the screen for the first time. He receives the congregation’s well-wishes and leaves for his new career.
However, he is quickly corrupted by the big city. It is not long before he accidentally kills a man named Jeff over a rigged crap game. After being arrested, he is sent to work on a chain-gang. An interesting side note is that while on the chain-gang we see Robeson without his shirt on. While nobody today would even bat an eye at such a display, in the Thirties this was unheard of presentation of male nudity. The fact that it is a black man makes the scene even more provocative. One source points out that the director uses this scene to highlight Robeson’s sexual power and to take advantage of the cultural stereotype concerning the “libidinal power of black men.” Maybe so, but I believe that the most fascinating moment of the chain-gang scene is where Robeson kills a white guard who was torturing another convict. Allow me to explain: this was the first time in the movies that a black man was shown killing a white man. Should it come as any surprise that it was edited out of the original cut?
With even more blood on his hands, Robeson escapes and gets a job working on a steamer heading for the Caribbean. One day, he spies an island and jumps ship. He swims to the island only to discover that it is not only inhabited, but it is ruled over by a black despot who gets his wares from a man named white merchant named Smithers. They strike up a partnership and eventually take over the island, overthrowing its leader. Robeson does this by loading all of the imperial guard’s guns with blanks. When he announces that he is overthrowing the old regime, they fire at him only to discover that he is invincible to their attacks. He declares that only a silver bullet can kill him. With nothing standing in his way, he begins his reign as the “Emperor Jones.”
His rule is short-lived, however. The power of office quickly goes to his head. In time, Robeson becomes an even worse tyrant than the ruler that he dethroned. Eventually, his subjects abandon him and gather in the forest to organize an attack on him. In his throne room, Robeson hears the sound of drums. They start off quietly at first, but they quickly get louder and louder. Frightened, Robeson flees into the forest where he delivers a twenty-five minute monologue taken from O’Neill’s play. If Robeson was dissatisfied with how the film changed the original play, then we can see his love for the role in this extended scene where he slowly goes insane. He begins to hallucinate and see the different people that he has run into over the course of his life: his wife, his old Baptist congregation, Jeff the gambler, the chain-gang guards, and his former subjects. With each hallucination, his grip on sanity gets weaker and weaker. He apologizes to the men that he killed, he begs his old preacher for salvation, and he even begins to mime working on the chain-gang. Eventually, he begins to fire his only pistol at the visions. We count the number of shots that he has left: five, now four, now two, now one. And all the time there is the sound of the drums, the inescapable drums. His plight ends as he circles the island and runs straight into the men that he had oppressed for so long….
If The Emperor Jones was cut down so that only the last twenty-five minutes were left, it would still be one of the most powerful performances of the Thirties. The Academy Award for Best Actor in 1933 was given to Charles Laughton for his portrayal of King Henry in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and that was a fine performance, to be sure. But the great insult to the world of cinema was not that Robeson didn’t win the award, but that he wasn’t even nominated. Of course the reason that he wasn’t nominated was the fact that he was black, but I wonder how much the story of The Emperor Jones bothered the academy. You didn’t see black characters portrayed with so much dignity in the Thirties. You especially didn’t see black actors talk down to white actors the way that Robeson lorded over the cowardly Smithers. But times have changed. With great early black actors like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, it’s easy to forget how black actors were discriminated against. Maybe if more people saw the works of Paul Robeson, they would understand how far black actors have come. For it is impossible to watch a performance by Paul Robeson and miss his pain, his devotion, and most importantly, his dignity in the face of oppression.