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The Black Emperor of Broadway

USA 2020
produced by
Arthur Egeli for Egeli Productions
directed by Arthur Egeli
starring Shaun Parkes, John Hensley, Nija Okoro, Nick Moran, Liza Weil, Lonnie Farmer, Nicholas Dorr, Eve Annenberg, Heather Egeli, Alexandra Foucard, Daniel Washington, Sarah MacDonnell, Tim Misuradze, John Clayton, Stuard Derrick, Ian Bowater, Christina Egeli, Will Oxtoby, Michael James Dreyer, Adrienne Earle Pender, Seneeca Wilson, Chev Hardy, Kayleigh Brown, Janey David, Fred Biddle, Leslie Lobell, Bryce Egeli, Paul Hickey, Roger A. Chauvette, James Little, Dave Loving, Tim Costigan, Anna McEntee, Issa Coulibaly, Charles Daniel, Larry Mahan
screenplay by Ian Bowater, based on the play by Jason Solowsky, based on the lives of Charles S. Gilpin & Eugene O'Neill, music by Adrienne Earle Pender

Emperor Jones

review by
Mike Haberfelner

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Charles S. Gilpin (Shaun Parkes) is an actor with a passion, and heaps of talent to go with it - but he's also black, which means he had to whither away playing minstrel shows for years, never really being able to accept their demeaning content. So by the 1910s he said no more and settled down in New York in an attempt to getting onto some of the local stages, the goal of course being Broadway - something unheard of back when. But he works his way up steadily, and eventually playing Reverend William Curtis in a 1919 play about Abraham Lincoln gets him his first mainstream acclaim. However, when that way closes it's back for Gilpin to menial jobs ...

It's 1920, and recent Pullitzer Prize laureat Eugene O'Neill's (John Hensley) company casts his play Emperor Jones for a Broadway run - and to the dismay of everyone on the company, O'Neill insists on a black man in the lead role instead of the then customary white man in blackface - and after being turned down by Paul Robeson (Daniel Washington), another popular actor of the era (in the film, in fact Robeson didn't staret out until a little later), O'Neill decides on Gilpin. Gilpin is happy to accept the role, but is opposed to the constant use of the n-word in O'Neill's play, insisting black people don't use it talking to each other, while O'Neill takes the educated white man position of knowing better because he says so, and insists on Gilpin sticking to his script verbatim. Gilpin does for the premiere, and he as well as the play get rave reviews. But since the praise for his performance outweighs the praise for the writing, he makes the role more and more his in future performances, abolishes the n-word more and more - much to the dismay of O'Neill, who sneaks into performances every now and again. This conflict doesn't reast easy on either man, and while Gilpin starts drinking more and more to compensate for the lack of approval from O'Neill, which eventually leads to his wife (Nija Okoro) leaving him, O'Neill starts to actively looking for a replacement, to the disapproval of some of his stock company members, and eventually when the play's picked up by a bigger theatre, Gilpin is dropped ...

 

Now if you, like me, aren't really into theatre and know little of its history, this story from a hundred years has probably passed you by so far ... and yet it's a groundbreaking and also poignant one - maybe even more so today than back when. However, this is not a film that preaches, and it does a great job to dramatize its plot in a way that speaks to a general audience, much more through its subtlety than any spectacle. And Shaun Parkes does a great job carrying the film supported by a very able and relatable ensemble, making this a pretty cool movie.

 

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review © by Mike Haberfelner

 

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On the same day
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directed by
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