At a Baptist prayer meeting, the preacher leads a prayer for Brutus Jones, who is leaving to become a railway porter. Jones joins the congregation in a spiritual. Once on the train, Jeff, a porter, shows Jones the ropes. Jones secretly takes up with Jeff's girl, Undine. He makes some money in a deal with a rich businessman on the train. Jones proves to be a cunning manipulator and a good liar. In a crap game, Jones stabs Jeff over a pair of loaded dice. Now doing hard labour, Jones kills a white prison guard and escapes. Shovelling coal on a ship in the Caribbean, Jones swims to an island. He is brought before the island's ruler, where Smithers, a crooked white trader, buys his freedom. Jones schemes his way into a partnership in Smithers' business, then finally control of the entire island through a touch of witchcraft, or so it seems. Brutus declares himself to be The Emperor Jones... Smithers reports on the unrest that Jones' rule is causing. One morning, the palace is empty of ... Written by
Eugene O'Neill's play opened on Broadway, New York City, New York, USA at the Neighborhood Playhouse on 1 November 1920 and ran for 204 performances. Black actor Charles Gilpin played the title role, the first time an important black role was not played by a white man in black-face. There were 3 New York revivals; Paul Robeson played the title character in the 1925 production. See more »
Ain't talking big what makes a man big, s'long as he makes folks believe it?
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Paul Robeson was a very fine early black actor whose career was rather limited because he generally refused the types of servile and undignified roles that tended to be the lot of black actors in the 30's and 40's (not to mention the fact that he developed some associations that led him - rightly or wrongly - to be associated with the communist movement and further limited his career potential.) In this adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's famous play "The Emperor Jones," Robeson plays Brutus Jones, a man in prison in the United States, who escapes and finds his way to a lonely Caribbean island, where he succeeds in setting himself up as dictator, and an increasingly brutal one, more interested in his own power and glory than in the well-being of his "subjects." Robeson's portrayal of Jones was quite convincing, particularly in the latter few scenes of the movie as he shows Jones losing touch with reality as he races through the jungle, trying to escape from his former subjects who are now in revolt.
Robeson's performance aside, though, I found this to be an unfortunate disappointment. The first problem was that the version I watched had some issues - particularly in the quality of the sound. It was often difficult to make out some of the dialogue. The story also seemed to move too rapidly through events. There wasn't sufficient development of the plot, which often was disconcerting as one tried to find some logic to the course of events.
I first became familiar with O'Neill's play way back in high school. Some of the adaptations made in transferring this to the screen didn't work well. In particular, there's far less emphasis in the movie on Jones' race through the jungle (which is, as I noted, the highlight of the movie) than there is in the play. O'Neill might not be overly pleased with this particular adaptation of his work. For Robeson's performance alone, though, this is definitely worth watching, even if it isn't great.
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