not in our stars, but in ourselves
This is white America. Any other nationality that is not of the white set knows this and accepts this till the day they die. That is everybody’s dream and ambition as a minority: to live and look as well as a white person. It is pictured as being in America. Every media you have, from TV to magazines to movies to films… I mean, the biggest thing that minority watches is what? Dynasty […], All My Children – the soap operas. Everybody has a million-dollar bracket. When they showing you a commercial from Honey Grahams to Crest, or Lestoil or Pine-sol – everybody’s in their own home. The little kids for Fisher Price toys, they’re not in no concrete playground. They’re riding around the lawn. The pool is in the back. This is white America. And when it comes to the minorities, especially black – we as a people, for the past 400 years – is the greatest example of behavior modification in the history of civilization. We have had everything taken away from us, and yet we have all learned how to survive. That is why, in the ballroom circuit, it is so obvious that if you have captured the great white way of living, or looking, or dressing, or speaking – you is a marvel.
– Pepper LaBeija, Paris is Burning
The Emperor Jones is a weird movie. Even by Pre-Code standards – when Hollywood cinema was reflecting and refracting the tumult in the Depression-era American psyche – it’s a weird movie. While some Pre-Code films managed to sneak in a progressive (for the early 1930s) idea about race relations from time to time, very few were all-black. If they were, they were more likely to be independent features than studio releases. (Somewhat later, mostly during World War II, the big studios did start making films aimed at black audiences – but that’s another story for another time.) The Emperor Jones was made somewhat independently, but it was indeed released by that bastion of star power, United Artists. And – well, as I said, it’s weird.
Based on Eugene O’Neill’s play of the same name, the film revolves around Brutus Jones (Paul Robeson). When we meet him, he’s just landed a job as a Pullman porter. His preacher warns against vainglory and sin, and Brutus promises to be good. The allure of the big city – to wit, New York – attracts him as a moth to a flame, however, and soon he’s gambling and stealing other guys’ girls. He’s always been an ambitious sort, and he begins to see that the world beyond his podunk little home town in the Deep South has a lot to offer. Unfortunately for him, his approach tends to be Machiavellian, if not downright amoral. During a fight at a craps game, he kills his friend in self-defense, and is sentenced to hard labor. To prevent a cop from beating a fellow prisoner, Brutus strikes and kills the cop with a shovel – and runs away during the ensuing uproar. He gets a job on a ship, shoveling coal into the engine, and jumps overboard when they pass a small island that his co-workers warn him is “trouble.” Brutus finds that the Caribbean nation is run by a black despot, and decides to stage a coup. He names himself the Emperor Jones, and orders his subjects to fall in line, pay hefty taxes, adorn him in the finest clothes, and suffer his wrath if they disobey or displease him. The islanders rebel after a couple of years of Jones’s imperial cruelty, and he decides to leave the palace. Fleeing through the woods – and placed under some sort of spell by the islanders – he hallucinates that he sees everyone he’s done wrong in his life. Finally, driven wild by the visions and the islanders’ incessantly beating drums, he runs screaming out of the forest and drops dead.
If there’s a moral in there, it’s probably meant to be that capitalism is bad. And, I mean, sure. It is. Jones’s fall begins when he gets an “upwardly mobile” job as a porter, and discovers all the fleeting pleasures available to him now that he has money. His fall accelerates when he joins up with the one white man on the island, a Brit named Smithers (Dudley Digges), to peddle goods at an outrageous mark-up to the desperate islanders. And he really comes crashing down when he tries to levy yet another unfair tax on his people, pocket the revenue, and then escape to collect all his ill-gotten money. So yes – capitalism is bad; exploitation is bad; but is it possible to ignore that it seems to be bad primarily for the uppity Negro who refuses to know his place? Not for me. O’Neill was a fine playwright, I guess, but I don’t think he was much of an authority on race relations. Surely he intended to present the extraordinarily unfair world of segregated America as a bad thing; surely he intended to write characters who were far more humanely constructed than most of the black stereotypes in popular culture at the time; surely he manages these things. It’s still pretty strange to see Jones – who’s not exactly a pleasant person, let’s be honest – so severely punished for his desire to commit “big stealin’,” the way white people were (and are) able to do.
It’s also strange and sad to see an actor with Robeson’s innate royalty, majesty, stature, and intelligence being fed lines peppered with n-words and “dese” and “dem” and “dere.” Robeson is phenomenally good, weaknesses of dialogue aside: his imposing physique, his beautifully rich voice, his charm – they all make for a convincing Emperor. And yet. It was common in literature (including screenwriting and playwrighting) for the tin-eared whiteboy writer to exaggerate black people’s accents and speaking patterns right there on the page: if you’ve ever read any Mark Twain, or any other number of nineteenth- and earlyish twentieth-century books, you’ve seen it there; you’ve heard it spoken by any African American with a speaking role in virtually any Hollywood movie released before, say, 1950; you get the idea. We aren’t in enlightened times now, but we aren’t in quite such dark ages anymore, and it grates on the twenty-first-century ear/eye. Popularity is no excuse, however, and I personally found that O’Neill’s attempt at some sort of African American vernacular was distracting, an ill-fitting suit for the magnificent figure of Paul Robeson.
These objections aside, The Emperor Jones is worth your time as a curious document of 1933, when the public was – for however brief a time – willing to entertain the notion that perhaps black people did in fact have ambition, dignity, hope, fear, and intelligence. Here, in a year when perhaps your own grandparents weren’t yet born, we have a film that dares to address the point brought up by LaBeija decades later, a point that’s still an intolerable idea to most (white) Americans: despite having been stolen from their homes, despite having been abused and raped and treated as chattel, despite having been denied their humanity by millions and millions of Americans and Europeans, despite segregation laws that were Byzantine in their insanity, black people survived. They kept dreaming, and hoping, and imagining that someday they’d be kings and queens and emperors and empresses again. I hope we’re inching towards that a little bit faster now.