56 minutes ago
today in black film history
released september 19, 1933 new york premiere ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
although hollywood’s african jungle films were at worst blatantly racist and at best distorted or contrived, they did offer occasional employment to many of the finest actors of the day, including clarence muse, dorothy dandridge, noble johnson, daniel haynes, and rex ingram. but even as brilliant an actor as paul robeson found himself frequently typecast in such limiting and often insulting productions.
emperor jones is a critically hailed film based on eugene o’neill’s play, which was one of the first important attempts by a white writer to deal with black characters in a serious drama. robeson successfully re-created his stage role as antihero brutus jones, an american ex-pullman porter, who by sheer nerve, becomes emperor of a tropical island, assumes a dictatorship, and is finally killed by the natives. a commanding black character who is the intellectual and social equal of whites, jones did not fall into the traditional categories of comic servant or naïve folk type. robeson’s nuanced portrayal of jones remains among his most memorable screen performances. yet, while later films like sanders of the river (1935), jericho (1937), song of freedom (1937), and king solomon’s mines (1937) returned robeson to similarly exotic locales, they failed to offer parts with the same substance or sense of majesty.
robeson accepted some of these roles in the hope that they might foster awareness of racial folk motifs, including native songs and dances; but most of the films were disappointingly formulaic, even imperialistic. robeson’s hopes for engendering major changes in the industry, like those of other actors and activists, were for the most part frustrated. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀