Thursday, July 12, 2012

#370: The Emperor Jones

(Dudley Murphy, 1933)

For the modern viewer, watching The Emperor Jones is a startling experience. Here is a film from the early years of talkies that not only stars a black man, but is almost entirely cast with black people. Robeson's Jones goes to nightclubs and casinos filled with them, he goes to a Black church and eventually takes over a predominantly Black country. Obviously, I was aware all of these things existed in 1933. But growing up on movies from the 30s and 40s accustomed me to seeing black actors as being perceived at the time as only fit for specific roles - servants, slaves, occasionally musicians. This was the time in which Al Jolson put on black face to usher in the sound era, while Orson Welles played Othello on Broadway. So seeing a predominantly black cast with a black star (albeit playing a corrupt and fatally flawed character) is both shocking and invigorating - a reminder of the scope of film history and the stretch of its depiction of society.

If you haven't noticed from the cover, The Emperor Jones is part of the Paul Robeson boxset that Criterion issued a few years ago. It's the film that brought Robeson international fame, and it's based on the Eugene O'Neill play that Robeson also starred in - but only after the original actor was fired after he insisted on removing the frequent use of the word "nigger" from the play. What's so interesting about this origin story is how it lends complexity to Robeson's own journey, as depicted in the documentary of his life also included on this disc, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist. Robeson was perhaps most famous for his rendition of "Ol' Man River," a casually racist song from the musical Show Boat, but as he got older and he became more socially and politically active he began to change the lyrics. A song primarily about passive and accepted struggle was turned into a defiant and unyielding call to arms.

For me, this story of Robeson's personal journey was much more interesting than the severely dated film attached to it. Apart from the obvious racism of the film, the acting and directing styles were extremely stagy, and while Robeson is a powerful presence onscreen, he isn't enough to make the film as a whole especially worthwhile. It's still a worthwhile watch, though, if only for the history lesson.

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