The Emperor Jones was the film that established Paul Robeson (1898-1976) as a screen star, the first African-American leading man in mainstream movies. Neither Robeson nor playwright Eugene O’Neill were strangers to the breaking of artistic barriers, although Robeson ultimately paid a great price for it. The play was a surreal tale of a man succumbing to temptation and greed. He escapes to an island in the West Indies (Haiti) and in two years makes himself "Emperor" of the place.

The releasing the film in New York was a triumph but the rest of the country was problematic. In the South, the response was virulent, sparking a number of lynchings in the weeks before it opened. For many decades, it was impossible to see this 1933 film even on television, because of the level of repression of Robeson by a racist FBI and Federal government. The film remained in a disjointed and dilapidated condition until its restoration in 2002.

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