The Emperor Jones (1933 film)

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The Emperor Jones
The Emperor Jones (1933 film).jpg
Directed by Dudley Murphy
Produced by Gifford Cochran
John Krimsky
Written by Eugene O'Neill (play)
DuBose Heyward (screenplay)
Starring Paul Robeson
Dudley Digges
Frank H. Wilson
Fredi Washington
Ruby Elzy
Music by Rosamond Johnson
Frank Tours
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Edited by Grant Whytock
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • September 29, 1933 (1933-09-29)
Running time
72 minutes
76 minutes (restored)
80 minutes (original)
Country United States
Language English
Budget $263,000[1]

The Emperor Jones is a 1933 American Pre-Code film adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill play of the same title, directed by Dudley Murphy, featuring Paul Robeson, Dudley Digges, Frank H. Wilson, and Fredi Washington. The screenplay was written by DuBose Heyward and filmed at Kaufman Astoria Studios with the beach scene shot at Long Beach, New York. Robeson starred in the O'Neill play on stage, both in the United States and England, a role that had helped launch his career.


The film is based rather loosely on Oneil'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 consider the movie to be just a vehicle for showing off Robeson's 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. 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. Given Robeson's subsequent career as a Civil Rights activist, the spectacle of his character using the term so frequently in regard to other blacks seems shocking today.


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.



The film was originally meant to be shot on location in Haiti but Robeson wanted to work in the studio.[1]


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.[citation needed]

DVD release[edit]

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 Criterion Collection in 2006.


  1. ^ a b "THE LASKY PRODUCTIONS.". Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885-1954) (Perth, WA: National Library of Australia). November 2, 1933. p. 32. Retrieved August 5, 2012. 


External links[edit]