The Emperor Jones

Director: Dudley Murphy
Screenplay: Du-Bose Heyward (based on the play by Eugene O’Neill)
Stars: Paul Robeson (Brutus Jones), Dudley Digges (Smithers), Frank Wilson (Jeff), Fredi Washington (Undine), Ruby Elzy (Dolly), George Stamper (Lem)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1933
Country: U.S.
The Emperor Jones: Criterion Collection DVD
The Emperor JonesWith The Emperor Jones, Paul Robeson became the first black actor to headline a mainstream Hollywood production. Robeson was, in the words of black film historian Donald Bogel, “a colossus” whose greatest contribution to black film history was “his proud, defiant portrait of the black man.” This better than anything describes his role in The Emperor Jones: As Brutus Jones, Robeson embodies a complex mixture of power and fear, defiance and egotism, pride and brutality. Although Brutus Jones is hardly a character to emulate, his complexity and rich humanity, however deeply flawed, marked a major step forward for the depiction of black characters on film who had, outside of low-budget race movies, been portrayed entirely as servants and entertainers.

When we first meet Jones, he is admiring himself in a mirror, an act of self-adulation that is central to his power and his arrogance. The story follows him as he goes from being an ambitious railroad porter to forcing his way into becoming the ruler of a small Caribbean island. Along the way he spurns several women, betrays and then kills his best friend, escapes from a chain gang, and dives off a tramp steamer with the avowed purpose of looking for “trouble.”

In many ways, Jones is a despicable character, but for black audiences in the 1930s, who were used to seeing themselves portrayed as marginalized at best, utterly demeaned at worst, seeing a powerful black character was enthralling. The Emperor Jones bludgeoned through color barriers, especially in its depiction of the relationship between Jones and Smithers (Dudley Digges), a white trader whom Jones first bullies into a partnership and eventually turns into his lackey. Watching Jones push Smithers around, at one point threatening his life, and dismissively referring to him as simply “White Man” presented a racial role reversal unheard of in a mainstream production.

Robeson had first played the role of Brutus Jones on stage, so by the time Eugene O’Neill’s play (first performed in 1920) had been adapted to the screen, he had already internalized the character. This may be why it has become the screen role for which he is best remembered. It may also be because, as a performer, he was so well-suited to it, with his enormous, imposing body; deep baritone voice (which had previously been heard only in live performances); and ability to shift from charming to menacing in a flash (a performative gift first witnessed in his screen debut, Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 melodrama Body and Soul, in which he played both a good-hearted inventor and a salacious criminal posing as a preacher). When Robeson first intones his name as “The Emperor Jones” (after dismissing several other titles, including “Mr. President” and “King Brutus”), you literally feel an icon crystallizing before you.

As a film, The Emperor Jones is lean and efficient, packing an amazing amount of narrative information into a tight running time. Director Dudley Murphy allows Robeson to dominate every scene he’s in, and there are several moments in which the film literally grinds to a halt so that Robeson can sing. Viewed today, these moments seem like awkward narrative interruptions (not to mention strange generic cross-breeding, as Robeson belting out tunes on the chain gang makes the film seem like a musical), but when you bear in mind that this was the only chance many viewers had to hear one of the most magnificent baritone voices every heard, it becomes impossible to imagine the filmmakers not including these sequences.

As a stage adaptation, The Emperor Jones fares quite well. There is a sense of spaciousness that belies the fact that most of the scenes take place on fairly restricted sets. The only time the film really stumbles is in its final act, as Jones is pursued by the islanders who have finally gotten fed up with his despotic rule. As he stumbles through the dark jungle, losing his clothing and his mind, he engages in a lengthy monologue that simply doesn’t work on film; it’s too stagey and forced, especially as it so clearly reconciles Jones’s atrocious behavior with his need for some kind of salvation. Some have also seen it as an unfortunate trivialization of his character, reducing him from powerful leader to a racial stereotype in a matter of minutes, although I would argue that Robeson’s weighty presence lends Jones an air of dignity even as he is reduced to a fugitive begging for forgiveness.

The Emperor Jones Criterion Collection DVD
Paul Robeson: Portraits of the ArtistThe Emperor Jones is available exclusively as part of the box set “Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist,” which also includes Body and Soul (1925), Borderline (1930), Sanders of the River (1935), Jericho (1937), The Proud Valley (1940), and Native Land (1942), as well as the Oscar-winning short documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979). The box also includes an insert booklet featuring an excerpt from Paul Robeson’s Here I Stand, new essays by Clement Alexander Price, Hilton Als, Charles Burnett, Ian Christie, Deborah Willis, and Charles Musser, a reprinted article by Harlem Renaissance writer Geraldyn Dismond, and a note from Pete Seeger.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by historian Jeffrey C. Stewart
  • “Our Paul: Remembering Paul Robeson” featurette
  • “Robeson on Robeson” featurette
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$99.95 (box set)
    Release DateFebruary 13, 2007

    The Emperor Jones was restored in 2001 by the Library of Congress to its most complete form after years of censorship, and Criterion’s transfer was made from a 35mm print struck from the restoration duplicate negative. The liner notes do not indicate any digital restoration, which is fairly obvious in the image, as it has more dirt, specks, and signs of age than is typical for Criterion transfers. The image is slightly soft, but not to the point that any detail is lost. All in all, the image isn’t quite as good as many Criterion collectors are accustomed to, but it still looks very good. The monaural soundtrack demonstrates the limitations of the era, but sounds excellent for its age, with a minimum of ambient hiss and aural artifacts.
    The audio commentary by historian Jeffrey C. Stewart, who has written on both African-American history and Paul Robeson, is extremely informative and worth a listen. He discusses the film’s history, its differences from Eugene O’Neill’s play, and also its relationship to black cultural history. Also included on the disc are two featurettes extolling Paul Robeson. “Our Paul: Remembering Paul Robeson” (18 min.) includes interviews with actors James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee (whose late husband Ossie Davis followed Robeson’s portrayal of Brutus Jones on stage) and filmmaker William Greaves, all of whom speak eloquently about Robeson and the mark he left on American culture. “Robeson on Robeson” is an 11-minute interview with Robeson’s son, Paul Robeson, Jr., who talks about his father’s legacy, as well as the specifics of how he approached the role of Brutus Jones.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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