Sunday 17 February 2008

The Emperor Jones (1933)

When I watched James Whale's 1935 film version of Show Boat, the most obvious thing to my ears was that the white folks sounded terrible and the black folks rocked. Of course nobody was supposed to notice that, it being 1935 and all, but for God's sake, how can you have Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel singing and then pretend that Irene Dunne and Helen Morgan sound great? It just doesn't make sense. Here we open with tribal African drumming then switch to a black baptist church somewhere and Robeson gets to sing some more. In fact there's music everywhere for a while and there are no white folks anywhere to be found.

Brutus Jones, the Emperor of the title, is a tour de force role for Robeson. The part comes from a fictional play, The Emperor Jones, which launched the career of Eugene O'Neill, but O'Neill seemingly based is it mostly on Henri Christophe, who arrived in Haiti as a slave but became president and then king, reigning for almost a decade. However there are other influences too including The Man Who Would Be King, a Kipling story filmed by John Huston.

Robeson, who had played the role on stage, apparently regretted the fact that the story deviated from the play by adding huge amounts of back story, but he's still a power to be reckoned with. He begins as a black man about to become a pullman porter, but he gradually rises up through the ranks by guts and dirty dealing. However he kills a man and finds himself on the chain gang, then escapes to become a slave on Haiti, owned by a white trader called Smithers. Before long he's worked his way up to be a partner, and pretty soon he's emperor of the whole place, with a courtroom full of mirrors and an invented nobility. He looks awesome at every point, a little stagy to today's mindset, but resonating nonetheless.

It's very much a product of the time, uncomfortable viewing to anyone who can't watch political incorrectness The n word comes up a lot, both spoken by whites and blacks, and there's more than a little crap shooting and pretty much any other racial stereotype you can think of. The quality of the filmmaking lags behind Robeson, and even behind Dudley Digges, who plays Smithers very aptly indeed. Robeson is the chief reason to watch, with the parallels to racial treatment in America the other.

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