Criterion Film a day, day 13: Getting ready to be offended with “The Emperor Jones”

People–especially liberals–love nothing more than to be offended. It gives us a chance to flex our big, liberal muscles. Sadly, however, the film The Emperor Jones did not piss me off like I so wanted it to do, even though it is a film from the early 30’s with an (almost) all-black cast.

The beginning of the film–which is an elaboration off of Eugene O’Neill’s career-making play of the same name–does not disappoint. It starts with a dance circle surrounded by stereotypically “tribal drumming” and then, just to make the point really clear, dissolves into a scene of dancing in the south, and finally, to a black church. It serves as a highlight reel for what black actors generally were asked to do in film and theater at the time.

The dialogue, too, helps date this film as one made for and by a white audience. I sho wishes it weren’t so distractin to lissen to how dem white folks think black folk talk, I shorely do.

And so on.

Paul Robeson plays the titular character, Brutus Jones–a Pullman porter who gets caught for killing a man in a fight. In a reference to Moses, he then refuses to whip a fellow prisoner and ends up killing the slave driver instead. He again escapes, this time to a small island in the Carribean, dominated by a voodoo religion. Brutus Jones is captured, and sold by the black leader of the island to a slave trader named Smithers.

This time, with a nod to Kipling’s Man Who Would Be King, Brutus Jones cleverly replaces the bullets of a soldier’s gun with blanks and then, in front of the island’s leader, provokes him to “shooting” him. He declares himself able only to be killed by a silver bullet, and so, takes control of the island.

Its hard to ignore the parallels to Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement, the newly crowned Emperor Jones even dresses like him. His reign is short, and odd: His right hand man is his former slave trader, who he contracts to help build the palace, and mocks the former leaders and his current subjects as “bush niggers.” He is a tough and severe ruler, and after punishing several men cruelly, a rebellion forms.

Jones rolls with it, as he ever does, and takes off into the forest, where the rebel’s “charms” force him to confront his demons–the man he killed, the chain gang. Driven to madness he pleads for salvation and respite, but doesn’t receive. Instead, he is driven into the hands of the rebels, and is killed by a silver bullet.

The last scene, notably, is of Smithers–the white man–standing over him, offering a brief and cynical eulogy.

In the end, the story really refrains from making a statement about what Garvey’s dreams would look like if turned into reality. O’Neill begins to make a statement in that direction, but seems to pull back and into the much safer territory of looking at his main character’s flaws, pride chief among them.

The film can’t help but indulge in a fascination of tribalism, portraying the natives of the islands as wholly superstitious, easily manipulated people, even if the voodoo eventually wins out over Robeson’s pleas for salvation.

Harder to tease apart is the “Bush nigger” element–this disdain Jones has for those on the island, that he can so easily colonize them and manipulate them, and that he is more shocked that they are rebelling against his superiority than anything else has most in parallel with white colonial rule (Smithers, notably is British).

I’m not really sure what a good answer is in this regard. O’Neill, no doubt aware of the Harlem Renaissance and certainly liberal enough to write a halfway-respectful play about black people, could (most troublingly) be making a Chris Rock-like distinction between two sorts of black people.

Perhaps the best answer is a criticism of Garvey himself, who could likely have held contempt for Black people who did not want to go with him or were looking for integration, not separation. His movement, which had some elements of pyramid scheme, likely betrayed some contempt for those who did not join his vision or his Black Star cruise line. Garvey even went so far as to meet with KKK leaders because of their shared perspective on separatism.

This seems too much. Perhaps he was just interested in exploring the different cultures of the black diaspora, or thinking through Garvey’s dreams and exploring what a black culture free of white domination would look like.

I don’t have a good answer for that, and the film is worth seeing, if only to provoke a similar confusion.


About Big Adam

A NYC doorman, a community organizer, wannabe ape, sometimes blogger, sometimes writer, always crossword puzzle incompleter, I will ride bicycles with your papa, dance Bhangra with your mama, take you on dates that cost nada.
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