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An Interview with Arthur Egeli, Director of The Black Emperor of Broadway

by Mike Haberfelner

October 2020

Films directed by Arthur Egeli on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new movie The Black Emperor of Broadway - in a few words, what is it about?

 

Eugene OíNeill casts a black actor as Emperor Jones in 1921 for a role that prior to that would have been a white actor in blackface.

 

Now how did you happen upon the story told in your movie in the first place, and of course also upon the play?

 

I was developing a bio about OíNeill with my long time writer partner Ian Bowater. He saw Adrienne Penderís play N in Raleigh and immediately called ďArthur, you have to see this play before we write another word."

 

Now what does the play at the center of The Black Emperor of Broadway, Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones, mean to you personally?

 

Emperor Jones, and of course I have the benefits of looking back in time, but it is one of the most racist and stereotypical pieces of work I have ever read. I was accustomed to seeing black people being made fun of in The Three Stooges for example, but I have never imagined there was a piece that so personified white views of black people at the time.

 

Do talk about The Black Emperor of Broadway's scriptwriter Ian Bowater, and what was your collaboration with him like? And how close did his script remain to Jason Solowsky's play of the same name?

 

I really considered the play a one act. But a movie is at least three acts. Ian and I had to fill in a lot of history that was very sparse and sometimes not talked about at all. For instance, were Gilpinís drinking habits just normal for the period or was it a way for OíNeill to justify his behavior after he had fired him? History makes it sound like OíNeill was pre-destined for greatness, but I found that hard to believe. Who was for it and who was against him? Whose shoulders was he stepping on or was it all him?

 

With The Black Emperor of Broadway being a period piece, what were the challenges of getting the era just right?

 

Needless to say, we didnít have enough money to do a lot of the things, so we mostly relied on existing buildings and streets in Provincetown that were from the period. Our production designer only had one helper, and sometimes the whole crew had to chip in to get the set ready. And remember, this is on a 16 day shooting schedule, so it was challenging.

 

What can you tell us about your overall directorial approach to your story at hand?

 

When you are on a schedule, the most important task for each scene is to be sure the scene moves the story forward. So you must shoot it in a way that tells that story in the most simple and direct way, with the least amount of shots and cuts. More set-ups mean more time and time is not what you have. And then to listen to the actors - they tell what you need to do.

 

Do talk about The Black Emperor of Broadway's key cast, and why exactly these people?

 

We need a lead actor who could be three things. Charles Gilpin the husband -  the real Charles Gilpin. Charles Gilpin the professional - the man Charles would present when working and trying to get an acting job. And then Charles Gilpin as Brutus Jones. This was very important because Charles stole the show and made the show a hit and OíNeill rich. In the end Shaun Parkes could do that and more, and I am so glad Mary Jo Slater introduced me to him.

 

A few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?

 

As a white director, I had worked with mostly white actors and crew. I didnít realize how much I would learn about the black experience in our country until I began making this film. Nija Okoro [Nika Okoro interview - click here], who plays Gilpinís wife, when she spoke, you know that she had been there - that she knew how tough it was to be a minority trying to follow your dreams in a country were black people have not had the opportunities that white people take for granted.

 

Anything you can tell us about audience and critical reception of The Black Emperor of Broadway?

 

I finally got to the see the film in a group - only 25 people socially distanced, but still a group. That was the moment I was waiting for. Where I thought it was too slow, the audience was glued to the screen. Then they fidgeted at some other spots, but not bad!!

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

I am working on a project based on the 1991 robbery of the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston (the most successful and still unsolved heist of all time).

 

What got you into filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?

 

I was lucky enough to study with Rob Tregenza at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who was dedicated to the feature film as an art form. I have been trying to fulfill that idea every since.

 

What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to The Black Emperor of Broadway?

 

I produced, with my wife Heather, Murder on the Cape, another film based on a true story. The older I get, the more I find real stories have the most meaning for me.

 

How would you describe yourself as a director?

 

Calm!

 

Filmmakers who inspire you?

 

Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack of course and Francis Ford Coppola.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Out of Africa.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

Any movie I made that didnít work!

 

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Your/your movie's website, social media, whatever else?

 

https://www.theblackemperor.com/

https://www.facebook.com/blackemperormovie

 

Anything else you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

I work with two very strong women - four movies so far -, co-producers Heather Egeli (my wife) and Judith Richland, who help make it wall happen!

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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Robots and rats,
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love and death and everything in between,
Tales to Chill
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Tales to Chill
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Tales to Chill
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directed by
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