Thursday, June 27, 2013

Movie of the Week: The Emperor Jones (Review)

I apologize for posting this review so late! I've been super busy, but I'm back!


The Emperor Jones is the film adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill play of the same name. I usually try to refrain from reviewing movies that are based off of plays or books (particularly when I haven't read them), but The Emperor Jones was such a monumental film for Hollywood and for Paul Robeson, that I felt it was a must-see/must-review anyway.


Unscrupulously ambitious Brutus Jones (Paul Robeson) escapes from jail after killing a guard and through bluff and bravado finds himself the emperor of a Caribbean island. [IMDb]


While watching this film, I began to really see the importance of reading the play first. Not because the film was hard to understand, but because it was very clear that a lot of things went missing. It wasn't too difficult to keep up with the story, but things were happening unbelievably fast. Brutus Jones had gone from a Pullman Porter-to-a gambler-to-a prisoner in only the first 30-40 minutes of the movie! Why the rush?

Wikipedia and IMDb gives us explanations:

The film is based rather loosely on the play, 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 consider the movie to be just a vehicle for showing off Robeson's musical talent (he sings a number of times in the film) [Wikipedia]

About a half-hour of completely original material was added to the movie adaptation in order to give the main character, Brutus Jones, a more detailed backstory, leaving only about 45 minutes from Eugene O'Neill's play. [IMDb]

In his autobiography, Paul Robeson said he regretted making the film because it deviated too much from the play. [IMDb]

For those--like me--who've never seen or read the play, this "emptiness" is very apparent even without knowledge of the above facts. As I stated before, things were happening too fast. I believe that the writer intended for Brutus Jones' story to be a "climbing of the ladder" kind of story, but his climb was more like: 1. First step 2. Second step 3. First step 4. Top step 5. Ground again. 

Brutus Jones (Paul Robeson) looking himself over as Smithers (Dudley Digges) looks on. 

Along with the rapid pace of the movie, I didn't care too much for the its message, either--it seems to say that if a poor black man dares to want more in life, bad things will happen to him--and if he acquires power, he'll abuse it, and only spiritual torture (and the good Lawd's fo'-giveness) will save him. Oh, and a white man will stand over him to reiterate his failure.

The Emperor's power has been question.

I really didn't care too much for this movie, but Paul Robeson (as expected) definitely gave an unforgettable performance--I rarely took my eyes off of him while watching! I'd recommend that you watch it for historic purposes. 

The sound quality of this video is pretty bad--high volume suggested.


The Emperor Jones movie poster was obtained from the film's Wikipedia page.

The first photo of Brutus Jones and Smithers was obtained from; The second from

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