Yes, I’ve dived back into the old movie pool this time with legendary black actor Paul Robeson. Probably many of my generation has never heard of him and up until this point I’ve really only heard him sing the song Old Man River. But Hulu now has the Criterion Collection of old great movies so I decided to watch The Emperor Jones, one of those movies I’ve always heard about but never seen.
The Emperor Jones, based on the Eugene O’Neill play is about Brutus Jones, a bit of a tall-taler, okay he’s more con man and charlatan but loveable somewhat. He’s a train porter but dreams of being bigger. And through some shady deals he becomes so but with it comes trouble. After killing a man during a dice game brawl Jones is sent to jail at hard labor. One day, Jones kills a guard and escapes on a ship. After jumping ship he ends up on an island. Now the people of this island are easily fooled by the likes of Brutus Jones and with some clever dealing, fast talking and outright bullying, next thing you know he’s risen to be Emperor Jones, ruler.
Everything works for a while but you know power can go to your head and Emperor Jones doesn’t realize there is only so far you can push people before they push back. And push back they do eventually which sends the Emperor Jones running for his life.
I liked the movie despite it’s problems. First being that apparently almost half of it is new material not in the original play. Second, a completely excessive use of the N-word by both whites and blacks in the movie. We not talking Django Unchained level, but a lot. And yes it’s 1933 but it felt at some point the director didn’t think Robeson could portray his superiority complex without frequent use of the word. A piece of trivia is that the word was removed from the version that went to black theaters at the time. I think that shows they knew it wasn’t necessary. But despite that its still worth a watching, if for no other reason the singing and Paul Robeson facing his demons near the end of the feature.
I couldn’t find a clip from Emperor Jones but this is Old Man River sung by Robeson in Showboat to give you an idea of this man’s talent. Only the first 1:54 of this is necessary, then other people start singing and dilute Robeson’s greatness.