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Preserving African-American Cinema
The Case of The Emperor Jones (1933)
Jennie Saxena with contributions from Ken Weissman and James Cozart
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The Emperor Jones (1933) is a fascinating historical document; nevertheless, it seems to have been a film destined to confound those involved with it. In retrospect, virtually none of the key figures in its production expressed satisfaction with the outcome. Paul Robeson felt the themes of the piece were better served by the stage productions. One of the producers, John Krimsky, when asked why he chose the play as his subject, replied, "I should have had my head examined." 1 Eugene O'Neill, whose famous one-act play was the basis for the script, called it "a compromise neither artistic nor commercial." 2 Portions of the African-American press attacked the film for promulgating the very stereotypes they were attempting to eradicate. State censorship also did its part to disembowel the work of its ideological content. And finally, the film was left to languish for decades, with only inferior 16mm [End Page 43] prints in circulation, precluding its inclusion in the standard texts of American film history. Was the film indeed such a failure, as these circumstances suggest, or was it a victim of racial attitudes and the Cold War, which similarly forced its star into exile and cultural marginality? Was the film badly made, as some contemporaries suggested, or did it merely fail to conform to the norms of classical Hollywood cinema?
Now a new restoration of The Emperor Jones at the Conservation Center of the Library of Congress (LC) provides audiences with an excellent improvement over anything seen of this title since its general release, even if it still remains incomplete. That such a restoration should occur at the LC is only natural, given its stated goal to preserve all American films named to the National Film Registry. It also pays particular attention to the LC's endeavor to preserve the work of all American minority filmmakers. The preservation project is also in keeping with a reevaluation of the film among academic film historians who, far from seeing it as a failure, have explicated The Emperor Jones as a subversive text that challenged prevalent contemporary racial attitudes.
One of the first film historians to point to the film's strengths was Thomas Cripps, who confirmed the film's overriding importance as an early sound era example of independent African-American filmmaking. 3 And a feminist reading of The Emperor Jones would show that the charismatic and physical attractiveness of Paul Robeson offered audiences (particularly female audiences), regardless of race, the rare opportunity to gaze on a sexualized African-American male. 4 In 1933 such an audience fantasy was still taboo, given a market that traded in Hollywood's racial stereotypes.
The power and strength of Robeson's performance was indeed an intolerable threat to mainstream American cinema, in which neutered and comical African-American men were the norm.
Furthermore, newer research on the history of the early American avant-garde in general, and Dudley Murphy in particular, 5 as well as studies of African-American independents like Oscar Micheaux, 6 position The Emperor Jones at the nexus of two interlocking discourses, both in opposition to Hollywood's classical narrative modes of address. The Emperor Jones in fact utilizes avant-garde film techniques to adapt O'Neill's avant-garde play, while its score by J. Rosamond Johnson in four movements moves from African rhythms to Gullah to Harlem jazz and voodoo, music that interpreted the African-American experience. 7 The film also included a prologue by the black activist and poet James Weldon Johnson.
As an experimental play in eight scenes, The Emperor Jones was an unlikely choice for a commercial film. It details the slide of the self-appointed ruler of a Caribbean [End Page 44] island into madness as he attempts to escape to safety through the thick forests of the island after being overthrown by...