Eugene O’Neill’s play, The Emperor Jones, is one of those works that is very easy to misconstrue as simply racist or simple-minded Freudianism. It’s neither, but the 1933 film adaptation of said play, starring Paul Robeson in the role of Brutus Jones, suffers from many of the same misconceptions, as well as a few of its own, due to the breaks the film makes from its source material- both pro and con. And these breaks owe all of their power to the screenplay by DuBose Heyward, and the interpretation of it by film director Dudley Murphy, one of the earliest ‘lost’ avant-garde filmmakers, who films it all in a very quick, modern style, as opposed to the then dominant style of extended master shots.
The film’s narrative does not already start on the unnamed tropical Caribbean Island that the play does; rather the film takes a chronological approach, and fleshes out more of Jones’ background. In this, though, the 76 minute film suffers, for the play is a direct examination of a man’s mind (however stereotyped one may argue it was rendered). The film neuters this innovative approach, but to Heyward’s and Murphy’s credit, the film compensates by expanding the tale of Jones with incidents not in the play. Plus, Murphy allows Robeson to physically change the tenor of scenes with a smile or a wink, or a knowing bow. To those who claim that Robeson was not a great actor, this is true only insofar as his acting style was not naturally cinematic- he was clearly theater and stage trained, but he does make a rather dated play still come alive, as a film, in the 21st century. And, of course, the film has a number of musical interludes that the play lacks because, well, when one has Robeson, one of the three or four greatest male voices ever recorded, you show off the wares.
The credits open with typical African music and scenes, then switches to a Baptist church to parallel the black religion with religions past. Jones is off to the North, to start his Pullman Porter job, and lies to his naïve girlfriend that he will remain faithful. He does not, of course, and soon has whores in every city, the most vicious being Undine (Fredi Washington, a pale black woman forced to wear blackface), the ex-girlfriend of Jeff (Frank Wilson), another porter who has befriended him. The two men end up enemies, and battle over a crap game, when Jeff is caught cheating. He tries to kill Jones with a switchblade, but is overpowered and ends up dead. Here is a typical Dumbest Possible Action trope; the death is clearly self-defence, witnessed by a crowded gambling hall, and black on black, so why would Jones run? This stupid act confers guilt upon him, and it is so perfunctory that Murphy just cuts to scenes of Jones on a chain gang, where his refusal to help beat a sweatbox prisoner leads him to kill the chain gang lead (the actual killing is cut away from, as to not offend white audiences of the day). Jones somehow escapes, hops a ship, and jumps overboard at the first island he can.
Here is where the film tackles not just racism, but colonialism, a far stickier and persistent problem, even in today’s world (which shows the continued relevance of both film and source play). Captured on the beach, Jones is brought before the buffoonish ‘King’ of the island. He is sentenced to jail, but ‘bought’ by Smithers (Dudley Digges), the lone white (British) merchant on the island, who schemes to rip off the King and his people. It is the repeated use of the word ‘nigger,’ by both Smithers and Jones, in many exchanges, that was considered controversial; but Robeson always claimed he had no problem with the word since it was a naturalistic and realistic representation of the realities the play and film portrayed. Jones, meanwhile, schemes to become partners with Smithers, and does. He then schemes to topple the King, and does, claiming he can only be killed with a silver bullet, because he filled the guns of the King’s guard with blanks. He then begins a multi-year rule of exploiting the natives, far worse and more brutally than Smithers or other Europeans have, thus falling into the trap of recreating the Southern white society that abused him, except with himself as the abuser, not the abused. It is this irony, and linkage of Jones with the all too human evils that power brings, where O’Neill’s play was most prescient. The natives then scheme to rid the island of him, and Smithers laughs as Jones flees into the jungle, thus letting the film catch up to the play, which is mainly told in flashbacks. The film then ends with the twenty plus minute sequence of Jones reliving much of what we have seen, his torments and the like, with a few scenes in the play replaced by ones in the film; diluting some of the more provocative charges of racism that the play made. Some of the visual effects are quite lovely, despite the film’s low budget status, even from 1933, its year of creation, mainly due to the excellent cinematography of Ernest Haller. The soundtrack, by Rosamond Johnson, is also first rate, especially considering the early sound era the film was made in. Jones is somehow deranged by the combination of visuals and music, as well as his own past and the voodoo of the natives, as signified by the constant beat of their drums. They end up killing him, and laying his corpse over a stone, as Smithers watches, then returns to his more ‘humane’ exploitation of the natives.
The DVD is part of The Criterion Collection’s four disk DVD boxed set, called Paul Robeson: Portraits Of The Artist. The disk that has The Emperor Jones on it also has a 29 minute long documentary by Saul J Turell, called Paul Robeson: Tribute To An Artist. That film is interesting, mainly because of its archival footage explaining how and why, over the years, Robeson changed the Oscar Hammerstein lyrics to ‘Ol’ Man River’, to suit his audiences and the state of life he was in. There is also Robeson On Robeson, in which Paul Robeson, Jr. talks of his father’s significance in the arts and American life; as well as Our Paul: Remembering Paul Robeson, in which friends and colleagues recall the man. The highlight of the disc is the audio commentary for the main film, in which historian Jeffery C Stewart opines on the film. Rather, I should say he tries to opine, and the commentary should be the disc’s highlight. The truth is that should is the operative word; the commentary simply is not compelling which, given Robeson’s stature and life, reflects poorly on Stewart.
Not only is Stewart relentlessly PC (which seems all the more condescending, given the film’s unabashed use of racism, the then reality) in what he says, but, while being scene specific, heonly talks about the scenes in ways he thinks O’Neill or Murphy or Robeson intended something to play out, rather than the import of the scene within the artwork itself, or chiming in with anecdotes about the actors and creators of the film. This myopia damns the listener (and I listened to every second) to a pompous, self-righteous, and obfuscated drone. Rare is the insight provided as nicely as when Stewart explains the social and racial reference to Jack Johnson, in a conversation between Jeff and Jones, about how to con the highest tips from rich white women. Instead, he tries too hard to frame the film into the box he’s created for it, rather than just let the film do that work. Facts and backgrounding are keys to good commentaries, as is a sense of knowing when silence can work. Also, one would have hoped that Criterion would have done some restoration of the original film- numerous scenes are in rough shape. But, ever since the switch to their new semi-C logo, Criterion has been skimping on film restoration and audio commentaries.
Let me return to my opening clam, though, that O’Neill’s play is one of those works that is very easy to misconstrue as simply racist or simple-minded Freudianism. The reason for this is that O’Neill lets some of his own liberal racism slip into his construction of the mind of Jones. O’Neill errs in thinking that by adding flaws to Jones that he adds complexity. Since Jones was apt to be immediately stereotyped by contemporary audiences, depth could only be gained by the attribution of positive qualities. Yes, we do see that Jones is cunning, and what would now be called a ‘playa,’ but he is also a brute, as his name suggests. And the easy way in which Freudian symbolism mucks up the play, and film’s end, does no great service either. Still, Jones is clearly the smartest and most resourceful character in the play, white or black, and the portrayal (attempted, at least) of the subconscious or unconscious mind (individual and/or collectively) does show how ahead of the game O’Neill was. The Emperor Jones is not a great film, and its source play is not a great work of drama, but both are important, and both have small moments of greatness - in the film’s case, mainly through the titanic presence of Robeson subverting some of the well-intended, but ultimately destructive, tendencies of O’Neill’s character portrayal. But, see the film, even if you cringe. Sometimes, even expired medicine can have power, if it does not always work.