The Emperor Jones (1933) – Dudley Murphy

Where would the film industry be without Paul Robeson? That it would be worse off is most likely true. That The Emperor Jones (1933), his most significant screen vehicle, would have next to nothing to offer without him is decidedly true. Robeson was one of the first black stars who were allowed to appear on screen with his dignity intact, and the qualifier “star” has hardly more appropriately applied to another actor. More than charisma, Robeson possessed that rarest quality of seeming eternally modern, an ability to transcend his place and time. Only Louise Brooks of his contemporaries had it like Robeson had it. Brutus Jones became his role of a lifetime, first on the stage and then on the screen, and in Dudley Murphy’s 1933 film both his dignity and modernity are on display, to say nothing of his magnificent bass and imposing presence.

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.

The swift end of Brutus Jones is a terrible reminder of Robeson’s own story. After The Emperor Jones with its black leading character exerting his will on his own destiny, Robeson was able to work on stage and on record mainly in Europe, but his American film career as a leading man was largely over; his last appearance on screen was just nine years after Jones, in 1942. Part of that was by Robeson’s choice, who was hawkish about his image and the role he occupied as a representative of an entire race, and the projects he was offered relied more and more on stereotypes that he flatly refused to play. In fact, his last film, Tales of Manhattan, was protested by the NAACP, a protest Robeson himself joined.

But what an appearance he has in The Emperor Jones, which recalls Brooks’ turn in Pandora’s Box (1929), as an irresistible, headstrong rake. Like Pandora’s Box, Jones tells a morality tale about individuals who have the gall to refuse what society has defined as their options. Brooks is on a tear to defy feminine expectations; Robeson is bent on bucking the yoke of the subservient black man. There’s an egoism to both characters’ actions as both are looking out only for themselves (Brutus Jones has no qualms taking advantage of other members of his race to sate his needs), and perhaps that is why both stories required endings in which order is restored and the leads are put back in their respective places (in both films, the grave) and why they represented such a threat to mainstream audiences; more than anything both Brooks’ and Robeson’s characters are guilty only of acting in a way traditionally reserved for white men.

Brutus Jones goes from being acted upon to the driver of his fate and what is so effective about this transition is Robeson’s way of making it seamless. There’s no large moment when he realizes his destiny; he simply seizes opportunities and takes what he can when he can. In fact, it’s not a transition at all. Jones the Pullman porter is the same man as the emperor he becomes; it’s just that more opportunities had come his way by then. “Learning fast, Jones,” an odious patron from his porter days tells Jones, “perhaps too fast.” In this exchange and others from the days when Jones must still bow to others, you can feel his discomfort at being beholden to anyone.  Listen to the way he says all the “dems” and “dats” that pepper his dialogue and to the contempt he has for the boundaries that separate him and success. Watch his smile when he’s forced to be patronized by those who temporarily hold power over him; it’s a crocodile’s smile. “What I was then is one thing,” Jones says. “What I is now is another.” I disagree. Jones has traded in his Pullman porter’s uniform for the ostentatious garb of an emperor, but the same man who believed he deserved the latter existed in the former.

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.

Robeson’s magnetism might be able to smooth over some of the narrative divots, but it can’t save Jones from the fate of the fallen tyrant. The last act occurs in the forest as Jones descends into a Macbethian madness haunted by incessant drums and horrifying visions brought on by guilt and the hallucinatory nectar of the trees (though I doubt Orson would ever admit it, this scene might have inspired Welles’ 1936 re-staging of Macbeth in Haiti; reviews of the production certainly drew the connection). In the end, it’s the spineless Smithers who looks over Jones’ body. Morally this is an acceptable resolution. Jones is, after all, a murderer, a cheat and a tyrant but it is difficult not to feel that the real message is a warning to any black members of the audience against upsetting the power structure (just as Pandora’s Box is a rebuke against women with unacceptable ambition). Jones can hardly be praised for his contribution to his fellows; he uses them as much as anyone (and the film lets Jones keep his dignity but is not as generous with the other black characters), and perhaps that is where Robeson’s modernity comes in. Here is a man who doesn’t see black or white but only success and has the gumption to dominate both to attain it.

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 onehis fate. For a race that had been systematically denied that opportunity (and still is), Robeson remains an inspiration. 

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