The first Eugene O'Neill play to receive acclaim, The Emperor Jones is about an African American man named Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter who escapes to a Carribean island after killing a prison guard and eventually sets himself as ruler. The original 1920 stage production unfolds as a series of flashbacks over eight scenes, with the protagonist being the sole speaker from scenes two through seven. Although original actor Charles Sidney Gilpin performed the complex role admirably, he was replaced for its long running revival in 1924 by Paul Robeson, who established his giant mark on history through this role.
When a film adaptation was in the works, only Robeson was considered for the lead role, especially after the acclaim he had gained with his booming bass singing "Old Man River" in the London production of Show Boat. O'Neill's psychological emphasis understandably would be difficult to translate on film, so DuBose Heyward's sequential screenplay deemphasizes the internal conflict, invents additional background story, and eliminates the flashbacks. It also adds a few songs to take advantage of Robeson's masterful voice. While this less expressionistic take makes it easier to follow, director Dudly Murphy's version obscures O'Neill's original intent, resulting in a mediocre film.
Paul Robeson's iconic performance is the sole reason to check out this film. The first African-American leading man to appear in a mainstream movie, Robeson's huge presence epitomizes power and dignity despite scenes that portray negative stereotypes—women chasing, dice throwing, chain gang labor, etc. Until his final downfall, Brutus Jones consistently stays in control and steadily adapts and gets ahead of his contemporaries, and Robeson's dominating presence communicates his character's strength. He's certainly not subtle, with gestures far more suited for the stage than for the intimacy of the camera, but it's easy to see why Robeson stamped his name firmly on the role. There are "actors" and "stars." Robeson is an unforgettable "star," destined to change history.
Despite its marked deficiencies, The Emperor Jones remains a "must see" for historic and cultural purposes, officially certified as such in 1999 by the Library of Congress, which preserved it in the National Film Registry. You can also add this to your personal collection now since the Criterion Collection includes the film with its Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist 4 disc box set. They have thankfully restored the censored portions as well, notably a number of portions that snipped the “nigger” word.
Due to the notoriety of this film and his reception, Robeson quickly realized that films could profoundly change racial and cultural misperceptions, and he continued to play iconic roles for another decade. At that point, Robeson dedicated himself to the "real world" and fighting for racial equality and for political causes for which he had a passion. Even in the wake of blackballing and passport revocation, Robeson proudly fought just as his Brutus Jones character until the very end.