The Emperor Jones (1933)

emperor jones

What better way to kick things off than with the least popular film from the best represented genre on LOVEFiLM, Drama. Of over 1000 films in this category this is the one at the very end when they are sorted by Most Popular. Is its place well deserved? Well the synopsis hardly instils confidence in any potential viewer.

Jones becomes a railway porter and proves to be a cunning manipulator and liar on board train. But he stabs another porter and does hard labour. Then he kills a prison guard and escapes reaching a Caribbean island. He schemes his way to control the island and declares himself Emperor!

Anyone who looks past that short, laboured description and actually presses play is initially greeted with the kind of sound and picture quality you’d expect from an 80 year old movie in the public domain that has been shown such little care and attention (though there is a Criterion DVD that one would assume is at least a little bit sharper and clearer). Persevere through the action you can’t quite see and the dialogue you can’t quite make out and you’ll soon adjust just in time to start feeling very, very uncomfortable.

Now even after giving it a bit of leeway for different times/attitudes this film feels racist, very racist. Jones possesses almost every unpleasant trait you can bestow on a fictional character. It’s not just that he’s a liar, cheater, gambler, manipulator and murderer but he does it all in such a cold manner that it’s hard not see it as the defamation of a race. A clear statement that Brutus (for that is his first name) and by extension black people as a whole are to be feared and certainly not to be trusted, the dice playing and knife fighting only serving to emphasise the divide between the uncivilised black characters and the generally more sympathetic (if quickly sketched) portrayals of white characters.

That the film can overcome this and still be more than simply a racist relic is in no small part down to its star, Paul Robeson. One of the first (if not the first) black actors to take on lead roles on the big screen, a place where his 6”3 frame dominates even before he opens his mouth. His deep singing voice gets to stand centre stage on numerous occasions but it is the final monologue that really shines. Lifted straight from the play the film is based on the monologue charts the final breakdown of a man who has pushed his luck just that little bit too far.

While no doubt more important for its academic relevance and historic importance (it has been preserved in the US National Film Register) it is also an interesting and entertaining display of the talents of an exceptional actor. A film unfairly stuck at the bottom of the pile, a rough diamond amongst the garbage.


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