I’m going to go ahead and wager that the names Paul Robeson and Eugene O’Neill may be foreign to you. While the singer famous for his rendition of “Old Man River” and the Nobel Laurette who introduced realism into the American drama may not be on the tip of the non-English Major tongue (assuming that that includes you), they’re both instrumental in the dark strange world of The Emperor Jones.
The movie begins with African natives performing a ritual exotic dance before we cut to the dichotomy of a Baptist church. Here they’re praying for Brutus Jones, played by Paul Robeson, a sinner who’s recently gotten a job as a porter on the railroad. He’s proud of his new shiny suit, and his wife warns him not to get too big of a head about it.
As a porter, Brutus soon works his way up the ladder, all the while being almost greedy enough to have his pupils replaced by dollar signs. With the money comes temptation, and Brutus gets involved with another woman and an unsavory gambling hall.
After a scuffle at said gambling hall leaves a man dead, Jones finds himself on a chain gang. Unable to submit to the authority, he beats a guard to death and escapes, heading for the Caribbean as a coal shoveler. Seeing an exotic island and fearing arrest at whatever port the ships arrives at, Jones jumps out and swims ashore, only to be captured by some natives.
If this sounds like a lot, rest assured it is. The film moves at an incredible pace, leaving it as an 82 minute movie with enough plot for a three hour film. The reason for this seems to be that the filmmakers wanted to expand upon O’Neill’s original piece and give Jones a more detailed back story for the events that happen next in the movie.
The original play actually only concerns Jones as he arrives on the island. He befriends a white trader, Smithers. who sells his wares to the tribe, and, seeing an opportunity, Jones quickly stages an incident involving a gun and some blank cartridges that he uses to declare himself God and emperor of the island.
While things are okay for a little bit, Jones takes glee in taxing the poor to build himself an enormous palace. After he orders the destruction of an non-compliant village, he finds himself alone with Smithers, boasting about how he’d planned to leave anyway. He will sneak into the jungle, find his stash of treasure, and leave in a boat. “Watch out for ghosts,” Smithers warns.
Jones escapes into the jungle, with the beating of his pursuers drums a constant reminder of what might lay ahead for him. As he goes deeper into the jungle, he begins to see visions of the life he led and of all his wrong doing. Unable to cope, we watch Jones descend into frothing madness, unable to reconcile who he is with who he should be.
Here and throughout the movie, Paul Robeson really brings the character home. He’s always arrogant and brash, but as he loses his mind at the end it’s a stunning and evolving deconstruction of all the bravura we’d seen happen before. The film is completely engrossing to watch, and that’s all thanks to his performance.
If the movie itself isn’t quite as successful, that may be because it’s overstuffed. I think inserting flashbacks during his trek through the jungle might have been more effective, because as is it often feels rushed and like there are moments missing; we’re getting a summary rather than a story.
In spite of that, The Emperor Jones can easily be recommended for Robeson. His portrayal is nothing short of stellar, and he brings Jones to life as a man who starts his journey grinning proudly, ends it convulsing on the dank jungle floor, completely maddened by how he’d gotten exactly what he always wanted.