Robeson felt "O'Neill had got what no other playwright has--that is, the true authentic Negro psychology. He has read the Negro and has felt the Negro's racial tragedy." As for his performance, "As I act, civilization falls away from me. My plight becomes real, the horrors terrible facts. I feel the terror of the slave mart, the degradation of man bought and sold into slavery. Well, I am the son of an emancipated slave and the stories of old father are vivid on the tablets of my memory." (Musser).
THE EMPEROR JONES (1933) became Robeson's big 'signature' film/role (and his last, at least in the US), written for the stage by Eugene O'Neill. Jones the character is himself controversial, a dark mirror to Robeson's quest for dignity and justice for all. Brutus Jones was how we assume white conservatives imagined Robeson, i.e. a strapping 'buck'-wild monster who can't be stopped except with a silver bullet while Robeson was far more political and idealistic. Robeson was a communist while Jones is the dark Col. Kurz-style heart of amok capitalism. Even the name 'Jones' spells out an insatiable hunger for momentum, which wouldn't last long once caught in the sluggish quicksand snail's pace of political and social reform. A name for addiction, "jones" is a hipster phrase for the early stages of drug withdrawal, re: The Last Poets' hit "Jones' comin' down." - "I'm jonesin' for a hit." An "Emperor Jones" is when the early stages become 'King Kong' size.
Nearly 70 years later, JONES still has stuff to offer, and still suffers from misunderstanding and snap judgments on the part of both its critics and champions. I frankly love the film, and have seen it a dozen times, on the old scratchy print the used to show on PBS, and even saw the Wooster Group version with Kate Valk in blackface back in 1996 (below). I can understand how offensive the 'black' language and expression (i.e. "sho nuff!") remains, but at the same time one must remember O'Neil wrote all sorts of 'hick humor' plays with equally colloquial dialects-- as was they style of the time (I don't mean that offense isn't justified). Part of the appeal for me stems from the way THE EMPEROR links the sounds of the rural blues which I love--ala Blind Blake, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, etc.--to pre-code Universal horror aesthetic. JONES reminds me a lot of the 1931 DRACULA from Universal, and it turns out they had the same set designer, Herman Rosse, and JONES director Dudley Murphy co-wrote DRACULA! It makes sense, I can feel both of them in my bones each time I watch either.
But mainly the film is great for Robeson, an actor of extraordinary, almost supernatural power. When he gets mean, he turns almost subhuman like a Mr. Hyde, when he's happy, he radiates like a sun. He embodies for me what I think of as a 'peak' human being, radiating out into mythic dimensions. It's the voice. He's almost like the weather; you tremble underneath his sky. Without such fire, his Jones would be just a sociopath, 'stead of God and the Devil rolled into-one-another-bled. Check out how Satanic he looks below:
To get back to the horror comparison, I'd have loved to have had an Emperor Jones Aurora model kit in the 1970s to go along with Godzilla, Frankenstein, the Phantom of the Opera, the Wolfman, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon! Like the pre-Chicago rural blues preserved on Yahoo records, and Universal pre-1934 horror flms, the JONES has a pleasantly surreal quality about it; a mix of eerie dislocation and folk-bluesy comfort, a morally dubious antihero (which gives you ten extra points) and a sense of elasticity in its narrative.
All this makes Jones' gradual disintegration perfectly analogous to the 'coming down from psychedelics' experience or opiate or benzo withdrawal as he's regularly presented with brutal, embittering quandries completely foreign to us as viewers, and he continually solves them through bravado and fast thinking, until finally he's all out of sass and the only person left to make a sucker out of, is himself. Dum bum BUMMM
Shot on Long Island Studios (where the Marx Brothers' filmed ANIMAL CRACKERS and THE COCOANUTS), the EMPEROR JONES definitely did not come out of Hollywood (supposedly Billie Holiday, Moms Mabley, and Rex Ingram can be spotted in bars and courts). There's nary a stock cliche of Tinseltown to be seen, and instead that cool mix of the avant garde and New Deal realism that made New York City pre-codes (Like Max Fleischer's Betty Boop cartoons) so edgy. "New Yowahk" accents and edgy art poetry combine here the same way they do with Lou Reed or Patti Smith, or Duke Ellington's BLACK AND TAN FANTASY.
The first half of the film (not in the original play) finds Jones leaving for a big job as Pullman porter and saying goodbye to his Baptist congregation and his woman (Ruby Elzy) No sooner has he run off to the train than he's getting into scuffles; winning at craps; fighting over vamps, and blackmailing industry bigwigs ("'Sho would be a shame if word got out 'bout that merger!") He does all this with such finesse that the corrupt white men around him can’t help but be impressed. Pretty soon they’re lighting his cigars and floating him stock tips. Then, like all Monopoly players eventually, Jones goes directly to jail. After a chance to sing "Water Boy," with his shirt off, Jones murders a guard and hightails it to a remote island where he soon craps his way to a dictatorship, shootin' strings of lucky sevens. Before you can say Jack Robinson he's trading economic advice once more, this time with a British importer on the island, Mr. Smithers (the only other character in O'Neill's original play). Jones lays it down real clear:
“Looka here, little man! There’s little stealin’ like you does and there’s big stealing like I does. For little stealing they get you in jail sooner or later, but for big stealing they make you emperor and put your picture in the hall of fame after you croak.”For the real Robeson, an honest man in a world of degenerates, it would be long after, but there's a plaque for him in Somerville, NJ, where I grew up! Nothing for the Emperor Jones himself, though: he remains stuck in a weird limbo between offensive caricature and archetype, John Henry the Steel Drivin' Man spot-welded to Mr. Hyde. That's why that Wooster Group production was so gutsy crazy: it genuinely risked alienating the bourgeoisie... you go, girls!
I often fantasize what would have happened if THE EMPEROR JONES (1933) had been a big enough hit that its archetypal poetry and power was recognized and it became a genre unto itself ala the Dracula or Mummy for Universal. Each film could end with him falling into a volcano or seemingly trampled by buffalo, only to return in the next installment, with a serial-like recap and prologue. Titles might include: THE EMPEROR JONES IN ISTANBUL; JONES VS. THE TIGER WOMEN; THE CURSE OF BRUTUS; JONES ON THE LOOSE; BRIDE OF JONES; JONES VS. THE WOLFMAN; and then later a short-lived TV series. Rival studios could do their own knock-offs. They tried to so similar things all the time, as with the old Adventures of Harry Lime radio show, or the short-lived Bold Venture, based on the characters Bogey and Bacall played in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT.
The real selling point 'money shot' for the series, akin to the vampirism or other 'grotesque' selling points of the Universal horror series', would be the equivalent of what frontal nudity was in the 1960s or cannibalism in the 1980s, namely the long overdue sight of black-on-white violence. EMPEROR JONES has two controversial and very subversive moments of this: 1) when Jones smashes a guard in the back of the head with a shovel, and 2) when he throttles Smithers for waking him up and breaking bad news. The lone surviving EJ print was--until recently--missing these scenes, no doubt sliced off by squeamish censors hoping to avoid riots in the south. It's refreshing to see them included in the new Criterion edition, for these are key moments that supplied the precedent for what as to become (as Kim Morgan notes) "the slap heard round the world." during IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1959).
Such a JONES genre might have been created had not Robeson come under federal scrutiny and been forced--like so many of his pinko brethren--to head to Europe for his creative freedom. Over in England he did in fact star in a series of unique-to-himself genre films, like SANDERS OF THE RIVER, JERICHO and SONG OF FREEDOM, but the 'edge' that JONES had is not there, no gutsy stab into the heart of old Jim Crow; no racist stereotypes inflated and exploited until their meaning drained all over your antique sofa. Without O'Neil to supply the brazenly nutball scenarios, there was only stoic communist-flava, ala THE PROUD VALLEY, a tale of Welsh miners and labor organizations. It might be uplifting, but it's got no hook, no draw... no darkness... at any rate I didn't see it. Let's move on!
EMPEROR is actually a bit like BLACK CAESAR or AMERICAN GANGSTER (which I compared to JONES here), or even THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING or STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE in the idea of a charismatic amoral scoundrel at the center of gravity; a villain who is far more interesting than the sanctimonious straight edges around him. It must be remembered after all, that this is how it should be and has always been in great drama. Audiences enjoy gangster movies because they themselves are not gangsters, and the movies let them get a by-proxy taste of what only looks good from across a glass shop window. Up close it's stagnant and poison, so they get the best of both worlds - the fantasy without the actual danger and incarceration. The feel good social sanctity movie is the reverse: it looks stagnant over from across our tinted window, and the film is about convincing you to hold your nose and endure! All for the good of the worker! For the good of the poor! Let zem eat you! There's no hook, no excitement in seeing a pro-labor unionization movie, unless it's got some great action scenes and/or method-acted corruption, ala ON THE WATERFRONT. I don't argue the brave heroism of the first union men who stood up to the raids and scabs and breakers, but it's not fun, Tony. It's strictly business.
Meanwhile we've also grown cynical about social activism after its failure to do much about Vietnam (1) and even less about Iraq. Maybe social change can be effected a lot more by satire and active disengagement with modern society. James Cagney played lots of morally ambiguous tough guys and the man was a saint. So why not Robeson? The saintly defender of the downtrodden is an admirable role, but it sets one up for easy toppling; it signifies a complete misunderstanding of viewer psychology. Playing 'already toppled' characters is the equivalent of what theorists might call 'strategic transparency.' That's why Bush was so popular and Obama with his rational intellect and calm demeanor makes average Joes want to shoot holes in the ceiling.
THE EMPEROR JONES remains, then, a true work of art because of its flaws. It's George Bush in blackface setting himself on fire for the good of the people. It's utterly unique unto itself. It's an avant garde howl of racial fear and confusion; it's a celebration of black power, even as that power is--before our eyes--broken down, crushed, frustrated and torn apart until the terrifying roots of slavery are exposed and below them even until life itself is revealed as originating in a bloody whirl of black skin and primordial anguish. Moby Dick isn't Greenpeace-friendly and JONES isn't PC, it's literature from an age when literature didn't mean snoozing in the Merchant Ivory section. There's a little something for everyone in THE EMPEROR JONES: horror, action, spirituality, island beaches, and great bass-baritone singing all the way through. It's messy, it's complicated and it's retroactively racist, but real art doesn't leave you pious and ethical and with arms of hand-printed socialist pamphlets. It kicks you in the groin, knocks the pamphlets out of your hands, and then tells you it's sorry, with a song that gets you too teary-eyed to resist when it steals your wallet.
JONES would be a good double-bill with RUNAWAY TRAIN, for example, if you wanted to move away from the race issue altogether and just compare character studies of men who have transcended fear and cannot be beaten as they escape jail and run for freedom or pursue power, hindered only by short-sightedness and inability to 'stop' running once they've been given too much power and luxury and don't know what to do with it, a problem which similarly defeats Daniel Plainview in THERE WILL BE BLOOD and the Hammer in Larry Cohen's severely underrated BLACK CAESAR (1973) and everyone else in the AMERICAN GANGSTER genre. American gangsters don't know how to grow old the way they do in, say, TOUCHEZ PAS GRIBISI. It's cuz America still aint old yet!
It's in this fashion we should especially view the second half of the film, as if Robeson's mythic archetypal warrior is totally having a bad acid flashback of the whole black diasporic experience over a hundred years into the past and beyond to the basic suffering root of life, ala William Hurt at the end of ALTERED STATES, racing along on a psychedelic train ride that makes me think O'Neill--an alcoholic--may have based some of those hallucinations on his own bouts with delirium tremens! It's also of course, hugely apt in its prediction of the next fifty or so years of the diasporic experience as poverty, drugs, AIDS and other legacies of Antebellum dehumanization linger on.
Emboldened by his contacts within the black intellectual community of Harlem, O’Neill was surely confident his good intentions compensated for any unconscious racism he may have had when writing JONES. So if the strokes he paints his Brutus with are harsh and crude we should endeavor to see this as an expressionistic affect common to depression-era theater. This was modernism, and Jones was both a character and a folk-tale mythic archetype, a symbol of the entire African-American experience plunked down into a savage gangster-ghost story. Plus it helps that Robeson’s huge form is so thrilling to look at: his broad and shirtless black body is held in vine-wreathed medium shots through the long trek around the jungle set and you can see the sweat glisten. All his visions and terrors are posed for as if an art deco sculpture. If O’Neill and Robeson couldn’t quite transcend the quagmire of African American stereotyping in the 1930s at least they could depict it as an actual quagmire, with vines, quicksand, ghost crocodiles, and a fade-to-black cynical enough for Billy Wilder.
(parts of this essay originally appeared in Bright Lights After Dark, 2007)