Film Review #88: The Emperor Jones
Director: Pen Tennyson
Cast: Paul Robeson, Fredi Washington
This year the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company, housed in the Community Folk Art Center across from Syracuse Stage, celebrates its 25th anniversary. When Bill Rowland and Roy Delemos founded PRPAC in 1982, they named it for the All-American athlete, lawyer, bass-baritone concert singer, stage and screen actor, writer, folklorist, speaker of twelve languages, human rights activist, and prodigious citizen of the world who had died only six years previously. Rowland and Delemos set the bar of theatrical aspiration high for their fledgling company. Robeson’s portrayal of the Moor in Othello in the mid-1940s remains the longest running Shakespearean production in Broadway history, though he first took that role to London in 1930 because US companies with otherwise white casts still would not put a black man in this lead.
Robeson had just finished the London Othello when he made The Emperor Jones.. In this adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play, a vain American on the lam from a Southern chain gang takes over a small West Indies island, outfits his palace in feathers and mirrors, then goes mad in the forest as his subjects revolt. Robeson had performed the role in 1924 and O’Neill only agreed to a film version with Robeson as Brutus Jones. It was Robeson’s first talkie. In altering the play's story to begin with Jones’ humble Baptist beginnings, brief Pullman porter career, and downfall by “vixens” like Undine (Fredi Washington) and crooked crap games, DuBose Heyward’s script also built on Robeson’s fame in bringing old spirituals to the concert stage. Jones sings as seamlessly as breathing – in church, while working, to comfort himself – so it almost seems artificial to call this a “musical.”
Chances are most Central New Yorkers haven’t seen Robeson’s thirteen films. Though hugely popular and hotly debated, these were pulled from circulation decades ago as his political activism grew. Robeson spent much of the McCarthyite 1950’s blacklisted and unable to travel, his passport revoked because he wouldn’t promise not to give speeches outside the country. Syracuse’s International Film Festival did screen his first movie at The Palace, with Dave Burrell’s Trio performing an original jazz score. In Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul, Robeson played a conniving preacher in an outsized Stetson. Made between 1925 and 1942, his films straddled the shift to talkies. Mostly out of print, the survivors were rare, scratchy copies that censors often mangled before they hit the screen.
Now the Criterion Collection has just filled this yawning cinematic chasm with a four-DVD boxed set. Paul Robeson: Portraits of an Artist contains seven Robeson films, Saul Turell’s Oscar-winning 1979 documentary Tribute to an Artist (on the same disc as The Emperor Jones), and motherlode-quality interviews and commentaries. The restored Emperor Jones alone patches together missing scenes and soundtrack sections from six different sources.
Those missing sections suggest the depth of controversy over this film. When Brutus Jones kills the white chain gang foreman rather than follow his orders to beat another convict, the scene jerks abruptly because footage on which he actually strikes the blow was cut by nervous censors as too provocative.
The film was equally unsettling for stereotypes, ambivalence and overtones that will get today’s viewers thinking hard. The English trader Smithers, the island’s only white man, fills the air with the word “nigger,” an aspect of the script that Robeson did not object to, although four years later, during the filming of Showboat, he would insist on a change in lyrics taking that word out of the song, “Old Man River.” In this film, some viewers may still be uneasy with the era’s artistic “primitivism” that depicts a black man acting out a descent into madness in the jungle (though it was guilty regret for acts like killing his friend Jeff that called up those visions). The opening shot of African dancers fades quickly to the Baptist church’s line dancers, implying their Christianity is a veneer. Yet the 2005 film Rize has a similar scene with footage of West African dancers overlapping Los Angeles break dancers who proudly claim tribal roots.
Meanwhile, Paul Robeson remains riveting on-screen and The Emperor Jones is a tight, absorbing, beautifully shot film.
Emerald City Video already has the new Criterion set, so you can rent the discs right off the rack and settle in for a genuine feast. Besides Micheaux’s Body and Soul, the set has Borderline (1930), Sanders of the River (1935), Jericho (1937), The Proud Valley (1940), and Native Land (1942), which Robeson narrated. Because the release of this set is so important, we’ll return with another Paul Robeson film next week.
This review was written for the 3/1/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly for “Make it Snappy,” a weekly column reviewing films that never opened locally and older films of enduring worth.