(United States, 1933, 76 minutes, b&w, 35mm)
The film will be screened in a new, difficult-to-obtain print, restored by the Library of Congress in 2003.
The story goes that Paul Robeson was acting as a way to earn his way through law school, when playwright Eugene O'Neill saw him, and offered him a starring role in All God's Chillun' Got Wings, and, penultimately, the title role in the 1924 revival of The Emperor Jones that began the swift transformation of Paul Robeson into the century's most extraordinary combined artistic talent. (The distinguished Black actor Charles Gilpin had played the role during the play's first run.) At the age of 26, Robeson was already living a full life; he'd been a football All-American and one of the greatest gate attractions in all of college sports at Rutgers, where he'd also made Phi Beta Kappa; he had played pro football, and would shortly be admitted to the New York Bar -- but O'Neill's offer changed his course. As an actor, a singer, and eventually, an orator and political figure, Robeson was a colossus of American culture. And the part of Brutus Jones, Pullman porter, murderer, convict, and warlord, effectively began that transformation.
By the time the film version of The Emperor Jones was released in September of 1933, Robeson had embarked upon stardom of a magnitude that even the megalomaniacal Brutus Jones would have a hard time imagining it.
Robeson had begun his film career in 1925, in Oscar Micheaux' morality play for the race cinema, Body and Soul, but the incredible gift that was Robeson's voice was not heard on screen until the film version of The Emperor Jones; Paul Robeson singing "Water Boy" in the film's prison rock quarry sequence remains one of the most thrilling moments in the sound cinema. Likewise, his performance as an actor is of great variety and bottomless charisma. Paul Robeson on screen, like the ill-stared Brutus Jones, is an irresistible force.
O'Neill had long been interested in a film version of The Emperor Jones, and had roughed out plans for a silent version of his play. But bringing the story to the screen in the Jim Crow 20's and 30's proved incredibly complex, and it was not until director Dudley Murphy convinced O'Neill's producers John Krimsky and Gifford Cochran to reorganize O'Neill's flashback narrative into a linear tale that would add suspense to Brutus Jones' weird rise and fall. DuBose Heyward, author of the book for Porgy and Bess, reworked O'Neill's play to these specifications, and filming began.
The Emperor Jones fulminates with violence, subversion of the existing racial order, and O'Neill's complicated inversions of Black stereotypes which sometimes seem indistinguishable from the stereotypes themselves. In was inconceivable that a major studio would even attempt to produce the film, and so The Emperor Jones went before the cameras at tiny Eastern Service Studios in New York, on May 25, 1933, as an independent film, budgeted at $250,000. While it was clear to everyone on the set that Robeson's performance would make him the first Black movie star, the film's prospects for difficulties arose immediately. The film was considered too dramatic a portrait of Black power for white Southern audiences. Black audiences, north and south, it was feared, would resent the use of the term "nigger" in the film, and so the word was edited out of prints destined for Black theaters, creating noticeable continuity gaps. Actress Fredi Washington, who plays the femme fatale Undine in the film, was light-skinned, and the skittish producers, fearing the love scenes between Robeson and Washington might thus appear to be interracial ones, reshot Washington's scenes with her in dark makeup, an unconscionable humiliation, then or now.
But word of Robeson's mesmerizing performance spread, and when the film could be seen as it was intended, critics recognized it as an exceptional production, particularly for an independent film. Ernest Haller's camera is fluid, even graceful in its telling of the story, and Herman Rosse's art direction is consistently inventive for an independent film. The producers' concern about the reception of the film was justified; since its release, opinion has been split on whether the film undercuts racism, or glories in it, extolls Black masculinity or contains it. Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association condemned the film, but perhaps that is because the film's burlesqueing of race leadership which expressed itself too often in hollow titles, ritual, and costumes hit the Garveyites too personally. In later years, Robeson said he regretted making the film, because of the liberties that had been taken with O'Neill's script.
Paul Robeson had the very highest standards for the representation of race on screen, and he never made a film he was completely pleased with. He was right to question the film's final commitment to Black dignity, but The Emperor Jones remains a remarkable refraction of the many lives the race led in the years of the Great Migration northward, and the terrible forced exile of African Americans from the soul of America. Paul Robeson's performance as Brutus Jones, larger then life, boastful, passionate, wily, and madly impetuous, still shines from the screen. Brutus says haughtily in the film, "I betcha they knows a man when they sees one," and today, more than 70 years after the film was first shown, we do indeed.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.