If you’re looking for a DVD to watch that will give you that THERE WILL BE BLOOD amok capitalist feeling, I have a great recommendation: THE EMPEROR JONES, the 1933 independent film of the Eugene O’Neill play starring blacklisted communist activist and basso profundo singer, Paul Robeson.
Like Oscar-winning Daniel Day Lewis’ towering display of “inner demon thou art loosed”-ness in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Paul Robeson’s performance in THE EMPEROR JONES is a jolt to the wildman bone, a powerful super-shock of id energy. Robeson was an intellectual actor-college football star-master of all trades who used his incredible creative energy, charisma and vocal power for the good and love of all men (and was thus persecuted and demonized for his troubles). A fitting dark mirror twin to Robeson himself, the character of Brutus Jones turns his big manly talents to purely selfish ends; he cheats, steals and blackmails his way up with such finesse that the corrupt white men around him can’t help but be impressed; pretty soon they’re lighting his cigarettes and floating him stock tips. Eventually though, he gets pinned with murder and hightails it to a remote island where he soon becomes dictator. “There’s little stealin’ like you does and there’s big stealing like I does,” he tells Smith, the British trader on the island. “For little stealing they get you in jail sooner or later, but for big stealing they make you emperor and put your picture in the hall of fame after you croak.” For Robeson, it would be long after… but he’s there now.
The Jeckyll and Hide of the artist also reflects in race issues still troubling our creative waters to this day: a white demon capitalist oil man mayeth have to surrender to salvation to get what he wants, but he also mayeth wreak vengeance on his holy oppressors in the safety of a drunken fog in his own bowling alley. Robeson’s Jones is allowed to roar and bully in the beginning, but but only to cower and grovel all the way home, submitting his bowed head to the boot heel of salvation as voodoo drums hypnotize him back through black history to “first man.” Striking socialist worker poses and breathing heavy in the big Long Island indoor studio jungle, Robeson panics and gets hysterical; he empties all his silver bullets against a flurry of superimposed ghost witch doctors, chain gangs, craps shooters and singing Baptists; he dies right back where he started, robbed of his epaulets and his dignity. White man Smith gets the last line, a sardonic kiss-off almost as sweet as Plainview’s.
Emboldened by his contacts within the black intellectual community of Harlem, O’Neill was surely confident his good intentions compensated for any unconscious racism he may have had when writing JONES. So if the strokes he paints his Brutus with are harsh and crude we should endeavor to see this as an expressionistic affect common to depression-era theater. Plus it helps that Robeson’s huge form is so thrilling to look at: His broad and shirtless black body is held in vine-wreathed medium shots through the long trek around the jungle set. All his visions and terrors are posed for as if an art deco sculpture. Meanwhile, over in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Lewis’ Plainview is allowed to grow old and soggy behind his desk, barely moving except to pour some more whiskey. One can’t see Robeson playing a well-spoken alcoholic white collar power broker in 1933, not without Will Hayes firing up his troops. But if O’Neill and Robeson couldn’t quite transcend the quagmire of African American stereotyping in the 1930s at least they could depict it as an actual quagmire, with vines, ghost crocodiles and a fade-to-black cynical enough for Billy Wilder. Man, you had me at hello.