In 1920, African-American actor Charles Gilpin was cast in the lead role of The Emperor Jones. His performance as Brutus Jones led to great acclaim and numerous honours, including the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1921. However, a disagreement with The Emperor Jones playwright Eugene O’Neill ended his career and led him down a path of self-destruction. Their relationship is the premise of The Black Emperor of Broadway, the latest film by Arthur Egeli.
When we first meet Gilpin (Shaun Parkes), his theatrical dreams highlight his lofty career ambitions but are dismissed because of his race. He soon catches the attention of O’Neill (John Hensley), who believes that Gilpin can make The Emperor Jones a hit. However, the excessive use of the ’n’ word in the script inevitably causes friction between the two, as well as highlights O’Neill’s lack of consideration towards his leading man.
Yet despite being unable to be heard, Gilpin is no victim either due to an apparent lack of social awareness. Although he becomes a success on stage, he refuses to recognise the depth of his achievement and influence as a famous African-American actor on Broadway. Instead, he chooses to hit the bottle and neglect his wife Florence (Nija Okoro) than concentrate on raising his theatrical profile.
What doesn’t help is that both Gilpin and O’Neill are so passionate about their work that it feeds their individual arrogance. Thanks to Parkes and Hensley’s intense performances, neither character refuses to compromise on the script changes but each believes that they are responsible for the play’s success. Unfortunately, Ian Bowater’s screenplay somewhat downplays the severity of the agitation between them. Instead, his dialogue almost dismisses it as ‘creative differences’ and blurs a scenario that was initially very clear. In the end, Gilpin and O’Neill present themselves as redeemed characters but the tension between them feels unresolved.
Overall, The Black Emperor of Broadway should have been able to highlight racism and social awareness through its narrative. Despite its solid performances, a lack of clarity only serves to confuse, rather than educate, audiences.
The Black Emperor of Broadway is available on demand from 15 September.
Director: Arthur Egeli; Ian Bowater (screenwriter)
Stars: Shaun Parkes, John Hensley, Nick Moran, Nija Okoro
Runtime: 98 minutes