THE EMPEROR JONES B+
USA (72 mi) 1933 restored version in 2003 (76 mi) d: Dudley Murphy
O’Neill had got what no other playwright has—that is, the true authentic Negro psychology. He has read the Negro and has felt the Negro’s racial tragedy.
As I act, civilization falls away from me. My plight becomes real, the horrors terrible facts. I feel the terror of the slave mart, the degradation of man bought and sold into slavery. Well, I am the son of an emancipated slave and the stories of old father are vivid on the tablets of my memory.
Looka here, little man! There’s little stealin’ like you does and there’s big stealing like I does. For little stealing they get you in jail sooner or later, but for big stealing they make you emperor and put your picture in the hall of fame after you croak.
—Emperor Jones (Paul Robeson)
Eugene O’Neill’s one-act play, The Emperor Jones, ran on Broadway in 1920 and was the playwright’s first major hit, his first venture into an avant-garde style of Expressionism, and one of the most radical American plays one could ever experience. The work is a distortion of reality, featuring only two characters, becoming in effect a lengthy 90-minute soliloquy of a single character recalling a series of flashbacks through a stream-of-conscious style of memory play, where certainly part of the extreme racial provocation is the continued use of the word “nigger” throughout (supposedly more than 30 times), even though it’s spoken by the black lead, Brutus Jones, where the language is like an eruption from his soul, a kind of collective subconscious that embodies the history of the black race. O’Neill writes the play in Negro dialect, a language of the uneducated and unsophisticated, using slang and slavery era style dialogue to advance a series of complex 20th century ideas and thoughts, which is a confounding experience for most audiences. While the immediate reaction is to judge the play by today’s standards, which would find this method racially insulting and demeaning, but certainly part of the radically provocative nature of the play is exactly this intent. Like Mark Twain before him, O’Neill was one of the first to write plays using American vernacular, and to involve characters on the fringe of society, where a prominent theme running throughout his works is how his characters struggle with their hopes and dreams, eventually sliding into disillusionment and despair, which is precisely what transpires here. It might help to understand that two of O’Neill’s favorite books were Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, both of which figure prominently in the character of Brutus Jones, who becomes a crude personification of black history. One might also add the heavily rhythmic and descriptive language of Vachel Lindsay’s poem The Congo (opening excerpt):
Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
[A deep rolling bass.]
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able,
Boom, boom, BOOM,
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
I could not turn from their revel in derision.
[More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.]
THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.
Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
[A rapidly piling climax of speed and racket.]
And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.
And "BLOOD" screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors,
"BLOOD" screamed the skull-faced, lean witch-doctors,
"Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
Vachel Lindsay, it should be pointed out, is the white son of a doctor who grew up in Springfield, Illinois across the street from the Governor’s mansion, where the intention of the poem, like O’Neill’s play, deliberately imitates the pounding of the drums, where the read out loud delivery is perhaps more akin to jazz, where it ceases to use conventional language but instead relies upon sound alone, conjuring up images of Congo’s indigenous people. As this section of the poem is under the opening section titled “Their Basic Savagery,” W.E.B. Du Bois criticized Lindsay’s perpetuation of the “savage African” stereotype. While the poem may have been intended as a statement against the kind of racist violence perpetrated by King Leopold in the Congo, it produced a plethora of criticism calling it well-meaning but misguided primitivism in its depiction of Africans, indulging in what was described as “romantic racism.” While the poem, often performed by Lindsay himself, is often used as an example of the ignorance about Africa and the racism prevalent in the United States, it’s also an example of a kind of epic work in the tradition of great American poets Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg.
O’Neill treads this same stereotypical territory of ethnic study and is subject to the same criticism in this work, especially as the play both begins and ends in a similar setting of primitive nakedness and the primordial darkness of the jungle. In 1933, still in the Pre-Code era of cinema, screenwriter Dubose Heyward, author of the 1925 novel Porgy that inspired the memorable 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, reconceived a backdrop and introduced additional characters for a film adaptation of O’Neill’s play, starring Paul Robeson in the role of Brutus Jones, who had already starred in theatrical versions of the play since 1925. The Great Depression placed O'Neill in need of money, so he sold the rights to the play for $30,000 with the single requirement that the lead be played by Paul Robeson. Shot on Long Island’s Astoria Studios, where the Marx Brothers filmed THE COCOANUTS (1929) and ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930), there’s not even a hint of Hollywood in this production, which retains an avant-garde edginess throughout, led by Robeson’s powerful stage presence, which includes not only powerful oratory, but also his command of songs. Robeson’s father was a runaway slave from a North Carolina plantation in 1860, then incredibly worked his way through college and became a minister, while his son won a scholarship to Rutgers University in an era when few blacks attended universities other than all-black institutions. He was Phi Beta Kappa and an All-American football player, later earning a law degree from Columbia Law School while playing three years in professional football. Playing the dramatic lead role in legitimate theater was a first for black actors, where he also went on to play the role of Othello, while Jerome Kern wrote the song “Ol’ Man River” specifically for him in the 1927 Broadway smash musical Showboat. Robeson’s powerful performance transcended the musical, as the dignity and tragic overtones he brought to the role overshadowed the rest of the show, where Robeson in a minor part became the main attraction, making the show an enormous hit.
Of note, in Heyward’s film adaptation, O’Neill’s play, which takes place exclusively on an unnamed Caribbean island, doesn’t even begin until 51-minutes into a 76-minute movie, adding scenes that showed the life of Brutus Jones before the island, where he worked as a Pullman porter, showing his romantic relationships along his route, where these early scenes reflect Robeson’s intense personal magnetism. Directed by Dudley Murphy, a white filmmaker who is the only one to ever capture the great blues singer Bessie Smith on film in his 16-minute short ST. LOUIS BLUES (1929), while also capturing the music of Duke Ellington in the 20’s, accompanied by Harlem dancers in BLACK AND TAN (1929). This film is a rare attempt at a collaborative effort between white intellectuals and black artists, dividing the critics over the artistic merits and issues of race. In the opening ten minutes or so of the film, half a dozen styles of black music are featured, from African chants, to church spirituals, juke joint swing, 1920’s Harlem jazz, West Indies and Gullah island sounds, and eventually even a chain gang song, where Robeson’s powerful voice is front and center, revealing an overconfident man with a swagger who always appears sure of himself. Reviewing the rushes, the censors of the Hays office complained that certain blacks weren’t black enough, where Brutus’s girlfriend Undine (Fredi Washington) was determined too light-skinned, forcing her to wear dark make up to avoid being mistaken for white, while the same indignity was suffered by Manoedi Maskote, a genuine African chief. In a nightclub scene, Billie Holiday is an uncredited extra, while Harold Nicholas, one-half of the Nicholas Brothers, is seen doing a solo dance. Perhaps most amusing is seeing a young 4-foot tall child leading the orchestra before breaking out into tap himself. But trouble awaits Brutus in a gambling hall (where we hear James P. Johnson play “St. Louis Blues” on the piano) when his friend Jeff (Frank Wilson) catches him cheating at the craps table playing with a pair of loaded dice. His murder gets Brutus sent to a chain gang, where at his first opportunity (after a song), he beats a guard to death and escapes on a ship heading to the Caribbean working as a coal shoveler (also breaking out into song). Fearing arrest at any port, he jumps ship and swims to a nearby island.
Once washed ashore, he’s immediately captured by black natives, where his imposing size impresses an unscrupulous white trader, Smithers (Dudley Digges), the only other character in the original play, who purchases him outright as his slave. While Smithers routinely does business with the local tribes, he’s met his match with Brutus, who is always seen as arrogant and brash, claiming he’s got a better relationship with the natives on the island than any white man, where he soon becomes Smithers’ business partner. Again, once the opportunity presents itself, Brutus stages a coup, pretending to have Voodoo (Black Magic) powers, as he appears invincible to bullets (having earlier placed blanks in the gun), claiming only a silver bullet can kill him, making all the natives bow down to him, disposing of the tribal chief and installing himself on the throne as the reigning deity, declaring himself God and Emperor of the island. One of his first commands is ordering Smithers to light his cigarette, where the tables are turned, turning Smithers into a sniveling weakling, and it’s a white man finally serving a black man, something utterly inconceivable to most white Americans at the time. However, Brutus develops an unquenchable thirst for money and power, doubling the taxes on local trade and building himself an enormous palace, becoming a brutal dictator, which eventually leads to his own downfall. Boasting how he was planning to leave anyway, Brutus tells Smithers that he’ll sneak into the jungle, dig up his buried stash of money, and find a boat back home returning as a rich man. “Watch out for ghosts,” Smithers warns him. As he escapes into the jungle, we hear the eerie sound of drumbeats, which persist throughout the play, but are only heard in the film during his planned escape. As he gets deeper into the jungle, he goes on a prolonged jungle monologue continually thinking of himself as better than these “bush niggers” from the island. He’s besieged, however, by visions of all the things he’s done wrong in his life, where in a fever dream he’s forced to confront his internal demons, becoming terrified at the grotesque hallucinations of tormenting ghosts, firing all his ammunition at them, literally becoming weak in the knees in a stunning transformation descending into a Shakespearean King Lear state of madness, unable to reconcile who he is as opposed to who he should be. Robeson dominates the film from the opening scene, where his performance is nothing less than enthralling, arguably his greatest role, bringing a great deal of humanity into the journey of a man beaming with pride and ambition in the opening, where his singing alone is simply glorious, but he ends up defeated and crawling alone on the jungle floor where he’s eventually shot by the natives with a silver bullet, but Smithers contends his own fears had already killed him.
Due to the racial content, this was a film that few were able to see at the time, as few theaters would book the film. Many demanded cuts, refusing to show a white man bowing down to a black man, also cutting out every use of the term “nigger,” eventually leaving the film in a disassembled state. The Library of Congress restoration team attempted to piece the film back together again in a 2003 restoration. Still missing are two nightmarish dream sequences where Brutus recalls being sold into slavery in Africa and the gruesome journey to America on a slave ship. One must recall, however, how this play was originally conceived as modernist, a response to social injustice, where O’Neill created a mythic character where a black man is completely free and liberated, if only in his mind, where one can only imagine the impact of seeing that onstage or onscreen at the time, where American black history is then examined through a near Proustian subconscious rendering of an unraveling gangster-ghost story taking place in an exotic location, a colonialist reference to white imperial powers, an oblique reference to Haiti, where if blacks follow the same exploitive pattern as whites, they’re doomed to the same failures, where the radical nature of this play’s ambition is simply mind-boggling. Robeson became politically involved in the 30’s, fighting against fascism and social injustice, visiting the battlefront of the Spanish Civil War, advocating the importance of forming unions in the struggle for economic justice, publicly calling upon all Americans to demand that Congress pass civil rights legislation, turning the resignation of the song “Ol’ Man River” into a protest anthem of utter defiance, but was eventually blacklisted as a subversive in 1950, with many of his movies and recordings removed from public distribution. Under different circumstances, we might (and probably should) be talking about Paul Robeson in the same breath as more familiar black historical icons like Muhammad Ali or Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1999, the film was chosen for selection into the National Film Registry.