The Emperor Jones (1933)
Director: Dudley Murphy
Cast: Paul Robeson, Dudley Digges, Frank H. Wilson
Synopsis: Unscrupulously ambitious Brutus Jones escapes from jail after killing a guard and through bluff and bravado finds himself the emperor of a Caribbean island.
Paul Robeson (King Solomon’s Mines), the star of The Emperor Jones, is one of cinema’s untapped talents, a giant of a man and performer whose skills were never really used to their best effect. Most of Robeson’s movies were low-budget affairs — at least until he decamped to the UK where his popularity there was immeasurably enhanced by his appearance in Sanders of the River. A highly intelligent and principled man, Robeson retired from the screen in 1942, proclaiming that he wouldn’t make any more films until there were better roles for blacks.
Robeson plays the title role in The Emperor Jones, a loose adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play in which a Pullman porter who is imprisoned for murder, escapes to become the emperor of a backward Caribbean island, and he’s far and away the best thing about it. The film’s modest budget — and a clause in Robeson’s contract that precluded filming from taking place in the deep South — gives it an appropriately stagy feel, and the acting of the Robeson’s supporting cast is largely forgettable, with only Dudley Digges’ (The Maltese Falcon, The Invisible Man) part as a roguish white trader and sometime partner of Jones making any kind of impression. Luckily, Robeson is on screen for almost the entire running time, and gives a magnetic performance throughout, particularly in the final reel.
As you’d expect from movies made during this era, the depiction of black people is largely negative — but then so is the depiction of whites, all of whom are either morally dubious or sadistic figures of authority totally lacking in humanity. More of interest as a curio today, The Emperor Jones is a middling film which nevertheless provides a fine example of Robeson’s talents.
(Reviewed 17th February 2014)