The film is based rather loosely on O'Neil's play, but adds an entire backstory before O'Neill's actual play begins, and includes several new characters that do not appear in it (such as Jones' wife, and a friendly priest who advises him to give up his evil ways). Some people considered the movie to be just a vehicle for displaying Robeson's famous musical talent (he sings a number of times in the film). However, the film does provide what may be Robeson's greatest dramatic performance in a movie, considered by many to be worthy of an Oscar nomination that it did not receive.
In the film version, the opening shots are of an African ritual dance. Some critics are quick to assess the opening as representative of the "primitive" black world to which Brutus Jones will eventually revert. However, more scholarly reviews of the film understand the complexities of the allusion to and comparison between the roots of the African-American church and the rhythmic chanting often seen in African religious practices. As discussed further, below, its director, Dudley Nichols, had co-directed Ballet Mecanique and other musically-based experimental films. Having just spent several years in Hollywood, he now craved the freedom to use musical forms as way of translating O'Neill's experimentation on stage into a film form. Paul Robeson was already a musical star, and would go on to study traditional African music and dance while on location in NIgeria and with scholars in London.
A quick dissolve takes us into a Baptist church in the American South, where the dancing of the congregation presents an image that argues for a continuity between the "savage" Africans and the ring-shout Baptists. Such suggestive editing may be the kind of element that causes viewers to suspect the film of racism.
Similarly, the film makes copious use of the word "nigger", as did O'Neill's original play. African Americans criticized O'Neill's language at the time, so its preservation and expansion in the film present another cause for critique. In fact, in the original production in 1920, the actor playing Jones, Charles Sidney Gilpin, a leading man in the all-African American Lafayette players, objected to the use of the word "nigger" to playwright Eugene O'Neill and began substituting "Negro" in the Provincetown Players premiere and then as it went on tour for two years in the States. In this, he reflected the African-American community's problematic relationship with the play — at a time when minstrel shows were still popular and only white men could play Othello.
O'Neill, an ex-sailor who freely used offensive epithets, had based the character, down to some specific traits and use of language, on an African-American friend from the New England waterfront, and felt the use of the word was dramatically justified. They could not come to a reconciliation and O'Neill gave the part to the much younger and then-unknown Paul Robeson for the 1924 New York revival and then its London premiere, both of which launched Robeson as the first black leading man of heretofore white American and British theater. Given Robeson's subsequent career as a Civil Rights activist, his character using the term so frequently in regard to other blacks seems shocking today, but Robeson would not have had his impact on civil rights had he never played this role. It made him a star, in a way that virtually no other part in the 1920s and '30s could have done; with its powerful visions of a slave ship and being sold at auction, the role of Brutus Jones had a scope and a reality that no American play had had for a black man before. Robeson often struggled with the inherent racist and imperialist limits of what few leading man roles there were for a black actor then and ran into criticism at the time because of it (see Sanders of the River, a 1935 film set in Nigeria).
At a Baptist prayer meeting, the preacher leads a prayer for Brutus Jones, who has just been hired as a Pullman Porter, a job that served the upward mobility of thousands of African-American men in the first half of the 20th century. Jones proudly shows off his uniform to his girlfriend Dolly (and the film's audience, setting up the contrast with the later scenes in which "the Emperor Jones" parades around in overdone military garb) before joining the congregation for a spiritual. But Jones is quickly corrupted by the lures of the big city, taking up with fast women and gamblers. One boisterous crap game leads to a fight in which he inadvertently stabs Jeff, the man who had introduced him to the fast-life and from whom he had stolen the affections of the beautiful Undine (played by Fredi Washington).
Jones was imprisoned and sent to do hard labor. (A stint on the chain gang allows the film its first opportunity to show Robeson without his shirt on, an exposure of male nudity unusual for 1933 and certainly for a black actor. Here and later the director plays on Robeson's sexual power and, implicitly, on cultural stereotypes about the libidinal power of black men.) Jones escapes the convict's life after striking a white guard who was torturing and beating another prisoner. Making his way home, he briefly receives the assistance of his girlfriend Dolly before taking a job stoking coal on a steamer headed for the Caribbean. One day, he catches sight of a remote island and jumps ship, swimming to the island.
The island is under the crude rule of a top-hatted black despot who receives merchandise from Smithers, the dilapidated white colonial merchant who is the sole Caucasian on the island. Jones rises to become Smithers' partner and eventually "Emperor". He dethrones his predecessor with a trick that allows him to survive what appears to be a fusillade of bullets, creating the myth that he can only be slain by a silver one. Jones's rule of the island involves increasing taxes on the poor natives and pocketing the proceeds.
The highlight is a twelve-minute spoken monologue taken directly from O'Neill's play, in which Brutus Jones (Robeson), hunted by natives in revolt, flees through the jungle and slowly disintegrates psychologically, becoming a shrieking hysteric who runs right into the path of his pursuers. This section was written as a nearly autobiographical account by O'Neill, who had gone off to Honduras the year after his graduation from Princeton and gotten hopelessly lost in the jungle, resulting in hallucinatory fears.Paul Robeson – Brutus Jones
Dudley Digges – Smithers
Frank H. Wilson – Jeff
Fredi Washington – Undine
Ruby Elzy – Dolly
George Haymid Stamper – Lem
Jackie "Moms" Mabley – Marcella
Blueboy O'Connor – Treasurer
Brandon Evans – Carrington
Rex Ingram – Court Crier
The film had originally meant to have ten days of location shooting in Haiti, but budget restrictions required shooting the film in the Astoria studios, underutilized due to the abandonment of the industry for the West Coast. Murphy was restricted to a trip to Haiti to bring back extras, musicians and dancers. As a newly self-imposed exile of the Hollywood studio system, Murphy had insisted on New York as opposed to Los Angeles; an early advocate of an independent New York-based cinema, free of Hollywood control. As the co-director of Ballet Mecanique - though Fernand Leger would become far more famous for this experimental, non-narrative film - Murphy had explored avant-garde film from its earliest days in Paris, and he wanted creative freedom the New York symbolized to him. He also prized access to the New York-based African-American community's highly trained theatrical talent. Robeson had only one location requirement: no filming south of the Mason–Dixon line—that is, in the then Jim Crow, segregated southern states of the former Confederacy.
The producers, director and screenwriter were required to present the screenplay to Eugene O'Neill before filming could commence; fearful because they'd added quite a bit of material, by making new scenes from what on stage were entirely in monologue, they were delighted to find O'Neill gave the screenplay his blessing, saying they'd "written a fine three-act play." O'Neill got $30,000 for the rights, a not insubstantial sum in the height of the Depression, which he badly needed for an expensive summer home he'd just purchased. Paul Robeson got $5000 a week, comparable to star prices out in Hollywood. The budget was roughly $200,000.
Dudley Murphy and writer Dubose Heywood had both been experimenting in what would be called by a future generation "Music Videos" — in other words, imagery that is held together by the film's music, rather than dialogue or narrative. In the case of The Emperor Jones, the director was trying to do both, not always successfully. Robeson would later complain that Murphy was condescending to him, that he was rushed through important scenes. Murphy was, in truth, far more interested in camera angles and visual experiments than in acting. He had no theater background to speak of, and further reports surfaced that he was completely out of his element in Robeson's crucial jungle scenes—the only parts of the film that actually used O'Neill's hallucinatory dialogue—and William de Mille (Cecil B. DeMille's older brother) had to be brought in to complete them - something DeMille himself claimed but was disputed by others.
Emperor Jones also suffered from the racist assumptions of the Hays Office, whose Production Code was in place and had been since 1930, if only haphazardly enforced until the arrival of ferocious Irish Catholic censor Joseph Breen the following year. (The use of the term "pre-code" for films made during and before 1934 is actually a misnomer; it refers to Breen's ascendancy, not to the absence of a code.)
Black on white violence was strictly forbidden, so a scene in which Jones kills a sadistic white prison guard had to be cut, leaving a lurch in the action. Haitian women smoking were cut; a white trader lighting a cigarette for the Emperor was cut. A steamy scene between Robeson and Fredi Washington as a prostitute had to be reshot when the Hays Office decreed she was too light-skinned and might be mistaken for a white woman; the actress had to wear dark make-up when the scene filmed a second time (the following year, Fredi Washington, a lifelong civil rights activist, would star in the original Imitation of Life, playing an African-American girl passing for white). Worst of all, the hallucinations in the jungle of the slave ship and the auction were removed,. undercutting the film's "dramatic resonance and doing a serious injustice to Eugene O'Neill's play," as Murphy's biographer writes in 2005.
In 1933, The Emperor Jones was released with a black actor's name getting top billing over a white actor for the first time, and an integrated cast into an America in which the Scottsboro boys were still being held for trial. The film opened to excellent, often glowing reviews in the trade, mainstream and African-American press - for Paul Robeson's powerful performance and often noting Murphy's visual innovations. Theaters in Times Square and Harlem were immediately sold-out. But releasing the film in the rest of the country was problematic. It remained controversial for its use of "nigger" even among liberal, northern, African American audiences - who nonetheless flocked to see it - and when distributed elsewhere, particularly in the South, the response was virulent: more than forty lynchings erupted in its opening week across the South where it wasn't showing yet. United Artists distributed the film and yanked it out of the midtown New York theater for a routine Wallace Beery comedy, after only two weeks. Elsewhere, post-production cuts were made taking out offending language wherever it occurred. The film became increasingly jumpy and unintelligeble as it spread out to neighborhood theaters across the country, and business fell.
The black-and-white film had blue tinting for the jungle scenes, something Murphy went to considerable trouble in this era before color - but it was considered old-fashioned, a throw-back to the silent era, and disappeared from most prints.
The film was a box office disappointment for United Artists.
The poor earnings were a bitter disappointment to the film's idealistic creators, particularly since the initial reviews promised a much greater success. Dudley Murphy remained an obscure and unprofitable director on the fringes of the industry; his dream of an independent fllm community based in New York, free of Hollywood control, was decades ahead of its time; it would not begun to be realized until the mid-1970s, when homegrown talent like Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese would make New York's gritty streets their film set.
But The Emperor Jones made a powerful impact, despite its erratic earnings, by showing Paul Robeson as a complex, sexual, morally ambiguous black man on the screen. It preserved his legendary performance and made him the first African-American screen star, and the most highly-visible African-American activist against racism at home and colonialism abroad, in the 1930s and '40s. Unfortunately, his was an all-too-brief career, cut short in 1950 by racist Red-baiting by the FBI and HUAC that denied Robeson a passport for the next eight years, created a nationwide disinformation smear campaign in the press, and suppressed concert performance, recordings and all of his films, including this one. For many decades, it was impossible to see this 1933 film even on television, because of the level of vicious repression of this brilliant black performer and activist by a racist FBI and Federal government.
Thus the film remained in this disjointed and dilapidated condition until 2002, when the Library of Congress restored it, going back to the original sound-to-disc music and contributions of prints from MoMA, Canada and other archives. Unfortunately, the hallucinatory scenes were never located and remain missing.
In 1999, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. - thus setting the stage for its restoration.
The film is in the public domain now, and can be purchased at many online outlets. A newly remastered version (with commentary and extras) was released on DVD by the prestigious Criterion Collection in 2006.