Follow TV Tropes


Theatre / The Emperor Jones

Go To

The Emperor Jones is a 1920 play by Eugene O'Neill.

Brutus Jones is an American black man who escaped prison, made his way to a merchant ship, and escaped the merchant ship, swimming to a Caribbean island. Once there, he establishes himself as the Emperor of the island, ruthlessly exploiting the natives, stealing their money and squirreling it away in offshore accounts. Jones is Genre Savvy enough to realize that the natives will eventually rise up against his tyranny and overthrow him, so he has a plan to escape through the jungle to the coast where he will board a ship. When the time comes, though, things don't go as planned. Except for the first scene and the last one, the play is a dramatic monologue from Jones as he escapes through the forest.

In 1933 the play was turned into an independent film, and a star vehicle for Paul Robeson. The movie is greatly expanded from the play, staging scenes that were only referred to as backstory in the play and inventing additional backstory for Jones.

None other than Billie Holiday can be spotted as an extra in the nightclub scene.


  • Chased by Angry Natives: Jones flees through the woods, chased by the revolutionaries out for his blood.
  • Designated Bullet: Brutus flees into the forest but is convinced that he is Nigh-Invulnerable and can only be killed by a special silver bullet that he possesses. He would rather kill himself with it than be captured, but La Résistance ultimately kills him — yes, with a silver bullet.
  • Don't Go Into the Woods: Smithers ("Smithson" in the film) warns Jones against going into the forest, saying "Yer don't know what might 'appen in there, it's that rotten still. Always sends the cold shivers down my back minute I gets in it.". Sure enough, in the forest Jones goes mad with fear and has a Villainous Breakdown.
  • Evil Colonialist: A rare example with a black protagonist, as Jones washes ashore on a Caribbean island, establishes himself as emperor, and oppresses and exploits the natives.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "It's a queer place, that stinkin' forest, even in daylight."
  • Heartbeat Soundtrack: In both play and film, the pounding of the drums speeds up as the natives close in and Jones's panic rises. The stage directions go so far as to specify the drums start off at a normal pulse rate of 72 beats per minute and speed up as Jones's heart does.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: "Brutus", a famous murderer.
  • Psychological Torment Zone: The forest, and the primary setting of the play.
  • Scary Black Man: The title character, who has a vicious temper and a murderous streak.
  • Shovel Strike: How Jones killed the prison guard in the play.
  • Silver Bullet: Jones got his invulnerable reputation by tampering with a bodyguard's gun, but he still somehow comes to believe that only a silver bullet can kill him. The native believe it, which is why they melt the island's money to make silver bullets to kill him.
  • Stealing from the Till: As Emperor, Jones is stealing from government revenue and hiding it in offshore accounts.
  • Swiss Bank Account: Where Jones' money has been going.
  • Villain Protagonist: Brutus Jones himself by virtue of oppressing the natives into rebellion.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Brutus is confident to the point of cockiness when he flees into the woods. But the pounding of the drums and his own fear and the oppressive spookiness of the forest lead to him hallucinating, gibbering in fright, and literally shooting at ghosts.
  • Who Needs Enemies?: Brutus and Smithers are partners-in-crime and ought to be friends, but in fact they are not. Brutus can barely hide his contempt for Smithers, and even tells him, "Dere's little stealin' like you does, and dere's big stealin' like I does." Smithers, in turn, secretly has nothing but hatred for Jones.

Tropes specific to the 1933 film:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The whole play is Brutus escaping the palace, Brutus fleeing through the jungle, and Brutus eventually shot by the rebels. Aside from an exchange between Brutus and Smithers in the opening scene and Smithers' dialogue with a rebel leader in the last scene, the rest of the play is a Brutus monologue while he flees through the jungle. Various events in Brutus's backstory, like the murder of Jeff, the murder of the prison guard, and Brutus's takeover, are only described by Brutus through dialogue. The film puts all that up on screen, and invents more backstory for Brutus, like scenes in his church and scenes when he's working on the train, as well as inventing the character of Undine to be a sort of Femme Fatale that leads Brutus to the dark side.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Brutus mulls for a moment on what to call himself now that he's taken over, rejects "King Jones" as not sounding right, then smiles and says "Emperor Jones".
  • Banana Republic: The island, which replaces its previous leader at just one word from Jones.
  • Basso Profundo: Paul Robeson's extraordinary singing voice is put to good advantage as Jones sings several songs.
  • Blackface: Ironically, used with an actress that identified as black. Mixed-race Fredi Washington was light-skinned enough to pass as white (this is used as a plot point in Washington film Imitation of Life). The filmmakers didn't want audiences to think Brutus had taken up with a white woman, so they put blackface on Washington.
  • Cat Fight: Undine and another woman have a hair-pulling Cat Fight at the nightclub over the attentions of Brutus.
  • Drop the Hammer: How Jones killed the prison guard in the film.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: The murder of the prison guard is with a peculiarly surreal shot that cuts to Brutus's face, then to a shot of other prisoners, then to a shot of Brutus running away as the guard lies dead.
  • Gun Struggle: A Knife Struggle, which ends up with Jeff dead and Brutus in prison.
  • Ironic Echo: Brutus's pride in his railroad porter uniform at the beginning is mirrored in his garish uniform as Emperor Jones.
  • Kubrick Stare: Jeff does this when he catches Undine with another man at the nightclub.
  • Match Cut: The opening scene of a native ceremony dance cuts to the parishioners at Brutus's church singing and dancing.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: Unlike in the play, where Brutus is a bad guy throughout, the film starts with his backstory, showing him with his loving wife and the Christian congregation he belongs to. He promises his wife he'll be faithful and he sings in the church. All of that goes out the window when he gets a taste of money, and on the island he becomes thoroughly evil.
  • Shirtless Scene: The film finds multiple occasions to show the handsome, powerfully built Robeson shirtless, like when Brutus is laboring as a ship's stoker, or when Brutus is fleeing from the revolutionaries.
  • Travel Montage: Various train stations with city names imposed on them to show where Brutus is traveling on the train.
  • Working on the Chain Gang: Brutus is doing this when he kills a guard and manages to escape.