BLACK FILMMAKING IN THE 1930s: “The Emperor Jones” starring Paul Robeson

America in the 1930s  was a time that predated my parents’  birth.  My maternal grandmother—my last surviving grandparent—lost her memories in her battle with Alzheimer’s long before I was able to ask her about life in those times. I don’t know if she would have wanted to speak of that history anyhow. She never explained to my mother exactly why she or my granddaddy left Alabama to move to New York. 

When my grandparents took summer roadtrips across the Mason Dixon line to visit family still living in the South, they’d alert my mother and her siblings to Jim Crow by saying, “Children, we’re beyond the veil now.” My mother recalls sneaking a drink from a “whites only” drinking fountain but otherwise growing up protected from whatever and whoever my grandparents had fled. I keep this blog and other journals so that my children’s children won’t ever have to wonder what I faced, felt and thought of this American reality and my Blackness within it. 

As I have contemplated the collective Black experience in the 1930s, I find myself having to trust  instinct and the latent memories in my DNA to lead me in the right direction. Again, I relied heavily on childhood black-and-white film viewing with my mother on Saturday afternoons. I don’t recall ever watching the Paul Robeson film I review in this post. Honestly, I don’t recall most of the titles of the films I saw. But I do recall all the actors and actresses (almost always white) constantly clad in business attire. Their hair coiffed with sophisticated dippity-doo flourish. Their facial expressions embodying the full weight, intensity and desperation of what always seemed to be self-manufactured drama.

FUN FACT: PAUL ROBESON SPOKE 15 LANGUAGES. 

I also remember occasionally hearing one of these hapless victims of classic Hollywood circumstance  declaring, I’m free, white and 21 or I’m young, white and free. Even in my youth, that line gave me pause. I was aware of my Blackness and every occurrence of that proclamation felt like a slap in the face.  Either youth’s resilience or a lack of alternative entertainment choices allowed the phrase to roll off my back as I saw those movies through to their conclusion. I wish I could have asked Grandma what she thought about the phrase. I’m sure she would have had a smart remark because her wit was quick and her rebukes were legendary but the best idea I can get for now is this article on its history.

As I watched this 1933 film, I was  largely unaware that  The Emperor Jones  was based on the 1920 play of the same name. While the play was a commentary on American imperialism and exploitation in Haiti, I saw the movie and  Paul Robeson’s portrayal of the protagonist Brutus Jones as a continuing conversation on class dynamics within the Black community as well as our relationship with other members of the African diaspora. 

I experienced a roller coaster of emotions as I took in this film. I was comforted by the opening scenes of African dance mixed with Sunday church service as they reminded me that our African identities have persisted within us despite our time and separation from the Continent. I was struck with a sense of pride when Brutus Jones was introduced and lauded by his fellow churchgoers as a Pullman Porter, one of the traveling Black professionals who helped to establish the Black middle class. All I could do was shake my head as I watched Jones take up with crazy-ass Undine (Fredi Washington) after promising that he’d stay true to his girlfriend Dolly (Ruby Elzy). Once Jones started shooting craps and talking mad ish, my stomach dropped because of course Jones was going to end up in a knife fight with Jeff (Frank Wilson) and land himself on some chain gang. 

Still I was surprised and shocked at how he could escape to a Caribbean island, get in cahoots with a white conman,  and  downright abuse the Black islanders as their self-declared emperor— like it was the thing to do! I literally shouted WTF at my screen. But then I was reminded of the American Colonization Society in Liberia and the way those freemen and women ended up imposing the same treatment they received in bondage on the Africans they encountered.  For more insights on this, I highly recommend the book Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It by James Ciment. *****Post continues below image.*****

Image courtesy of IMDB.

By the movie’s end, I hated one of my favorite Black actors of all time. Paul Robeson as Brutus Jones was fine as hell and he showcased his vocal talents in the production just about every chance he could. But he took villainy and self-hatred to new levels in his portrayal. I had no sympathy for his scandalous ass. He deserved everything those poor exploited islanders had to give him in return for his cruelty and mercilessness.  

Still I plan on incorporating the following line spoken by Jeff into any and every conversation I can:

“Honeyin up to my gal, eh?”

Until tomorrow.

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