The movie, which lobotomizes Eugene O’Neill’s psychological play (which was flawed to begin with), is so dominated by Robeson that it becomes a fascinating document of the cult of personality. It tells the story of the poor train porter Jones who goes from being a fugitive on the run for two murders to the self-imposed ruler of a Caribbean island. The narrative is messy, rushed and undercooked (the screenplay by DuBose Heyward, the creator of Porgy, rearranged the structure of O’Neill’s story and lost some of its insight without adding any clarity); it chronicles a rise so meteoric and a fall so swift that it could hardly be believed if it weren’t buoyed by Robeson’s dominating specter. The idea of a tribal culture anointing a man as their ruler because they believe he has mythical qualities often feels ridiculous or offensive, but in The Emperor Jones it comes close to authenticity simply because Robeson commands that type of respect. He seems other-worldly, too big for this one, and when his fall arrives it’s doubly tragic because it reminds us that the world, especially a racist one, is far too threatened by those who outgrow it.
When he’s freed to make his own way he becomes a force of nature and the switch from powerlessness to power is like turning on a light. When he declares himself emperor he makes a British imperialist Smithers (Dudley Digges) his toady and his demand of “Smithers! Cigarette!” has the force of a bomb. When he punctuates his request with “Light!” it has all the power of the Sweet Smell of Success (1957) line, “Match me, Sidney,” in terms of defining the power dynamic. Jones is a big man with huge ambitions. “There’s little stealing like you does,” he tells the gutless Smithers, “and there’s big stealing like I does. For the little stealing they gets you in jail soon or late. For the big stealing, they makes you emperor and puts you in the Hall of Fame when you croaks.” Many a titan of industry must nod their heads at that sentiment.
In this way even his death is a triumph, depraved as it is. “… [H]e does not die because he is black,” Professor Norman Kagan wrote about the film, “but because he has a conscience and is civilized.” Robeson gives us a man who was an emperor of a specific place but who represents the ability to rule over a universal one—his fate. For a race that had been systematically denied that opportunity (and still is), Robeson remains an inspiration.