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
In his autobiography, Paul Robeson said he regretted making the film because it deviated too much from the play. See more »
[Jones prepares to escape into the jungle]
Give my regards to any ghosts yer 'appen to meet!
If dat ghost have money, I tells him never to haunt you lessen he wants to lose it!
See more »
In the 1920s American's greatest dramatist arrived on Broadway in the person of Eugene O'Neill. The son of a well remembered Shakespearean and Romantic actor (the nightmare relationship of Eugene, his father James, his mother, and his older brother is the subject of his last play A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT), O'Neill was not afraid to tackle subjects that were not usually discussed in American drama: incest in DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS for instance. He experimented with different styles of acting, copying the Greek trilogy of Aschylus in MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, and using masked actors in THE GREAT GOD BROWN. But he also created the first modern drama of importance with a central figure who was an African American. This was THE EMPEROR JONES (1925).
Brutus Jones is a tremendous step forward in American dramaturgy because he is the central figure. Than said O'Neill's play still maintains stereotyping. Brutus is a porter on a train, who frequently plays craps, and who has an argument with his friend Jeff and kills him in a fight with razors. He flees to a foreign island, and he soon discovers that he has leadership qualities there that enable him to set up a monarchy there with himself as Emperor. He even sets up a court with uniformed courtiers. But the moment he gives orders to destroy a village for not showing proper deference to him, his reign begins to fall apart. And soon from being Emperor he becomes a hunted animal.
The stereotyping continues, with Brutus slowly losing his bearings and balance due to the incessant drums beating in the forest surrounding him. He hallucinates and sees the ghost of Jeff. He has always spread the word of his invincibility by saying only silver bullets could kill him. So his pursuers melt silver down to make the bullets they use to hunt him down and kill him.
As was pointed out on another discussion of the film on this thread, O'Neill based the fall of Jones on that of Haitian Emperor Henri I (Henri Christophe), except that he committed suicide with a silver bullet when he was about to be captured and executed.
The play was successful, and would be one of the first triumphs in Paul Robeson's career. He did not originate the role (as he did not originate the role of Joe in the stage production of SHOWBOAT). But he became identified with the role - to the point that he made this independent, somewhat defective production of the film in 1933. Except for Dudley Digges, as the one white man in Jones' kingdom (and Jones' occasional intimate), the cast is pretty forgettable. But it is watching Robeson in his one major lead role that holds our attention. He is a commanding figure in the film and fits the role of a man who loses his throne and power and sanity and life in one evil night. Still, one really wishes that the film's production values could have been better - some of the special effects (the appearance of the ghost of Jeff for example) are quite weak.
With it's defects it is a measure of watching Robeson at his best that I'd rate it a "7" out of "10".
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