The Emperor Jones

1933, Movie, NR, 80 mins


This fascinating--if rather stiff--production of the brooding Eugene O'Neill play showcases Paul Robeson as Brutus Jones, his most forceful and memorable film role.

Jones, a newly hired railroad porter, is first shown admiring himself before a mirror in his new uniform. His rich baritone voice makes him stand out as he booms out a moving hymn in church. Jones is clearly a man who thinks very highly of himself. This false pride proves to be his undoing. He goes on to cheat on his fiancee and fool around with his best friend's girlfriend. He deserts her and later enters a crap game where he stabs his friend to death. He gets sentenced to a chain gang for life.

He escapes and eventually ends up in Haiti where he meets Smithers (Dudley Digges), an unscrupulous trader who uses Jones to keep the natives in line. Jones is so feared by the natives, whom he has fooled into believing that he is immortal, that he becomes rich as Smithers's partner. In a short time, he unseats the native king and declares himself emperor, ruling the land with an iron fist.

Robeson is the main attraction here and he is well supported by the sleazy Digges (the only white actor in an otherwise all-black cast). Robeson's powerful presence, particularly through his wonderful, mellifluous voice, dominates each scene. There was never any doubt about Robeson playing the role of the vainglorious Jones; a distinguished athlete and Columbia Law School graduate, he deferred his entry into the New York bar when O'Neill himself persuaded Robeson to star in a production of The Emperor Jones. leave a comment

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