TL;DR – A look at a revolutionary figure in Broadway’s past and the layers of oppression he had to go through to get where he did.
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
Warning – Extensive use of blackface
If there is one large blind spot in my art history, it is Broadway. I didn’t come from a musical theatre background, so any introduction to this world is welcome. Today we look at a film that explores this through the life of Charles Sidney Gilpin one of its first Black stars. I should say that before we dive in as a bit of a warning that this is a film very much set in the 1920s and the language and depictions used in the movie are consistent with that time which may be difficult for some viewers.
So to set the scene, Charles Sidney Gilpin (Shaun Parkes) is working in a blackface minstrel show that goes around entertaining white people at parties. He hates the work and tries to get a job a legitimate actor which is difficult in a time when few roles are written for black men, and white people in blackface perform most of them. That chance finally comes when noted play write Eugene O’Neill (John Hensley) writes his newest play The Emperor Jones about a leader of Haiti and he wants Charles for the role.
For a film about actors, it lives and falls on its casting because you need someone who can step into this huge role. I had seen Shaun Parkes in small parts like on Lost in Space, and I wondered if he could hit the level of intensity needed for this role, and he does in spades. You feel his anger, pain, joy, and loss through his performance. By the end of it, I very much wanted to see Shaun Parkes do an actual performance of The Emperor Jones because I think he would be amazing in it. The main antagonist in the film becomes O’Neill, and while John Hensley takes a bit to ramp up into his performance when it lands, it is spectacular.
I was concerned coming into this film about how they would depict such a revolutionary figure in the field. However, finding out that it is based off a play from Adrienne Earle Pender helped steady those concerns. From what I can tell, this is a generally faithful depiction of his life. It charts the rise and fall of the actor and the world around him that made Gilpin have to fight for every step he made. Where they have changed things is by accelerating the timetable from the point where the play goes to Broadway. In real life, Gilpin played the role for a while and did an American tour before falling out with O’Neill and being replaced. This condenses the film and the conflict to fit the run time. However, this meant accelerating his alcoholism and fall, which was a shame because there was a lot you could have explored there beyond the headline points.
Overall I found it to be a compelling film about a prominent but sad historical figure given how he ended up in real life. However, a couple of factors did hold it back from realizing what it could have been. The first is that for a film about the first leading black actor on Broadway, too much of the narrative is taken up by Eugene O’Neill and his story. This is even with the feeling that given how inconsistent his motivation is a lot of his role got cut back during the edit. Also, from a production point of view, I found the music almost distracting in places as it swelled and overtook the dramatic moments. This is probably more of a subjective issue on my part, but it kept taking me out of the moment.
In the end, do we recommend The Black Emperor of Broadway? Yes, I think we do. It is the strong performances that bring you through this film as well as the fascinating subject if the biopic. I would have liked it more focused on him, but I hope this spurs more people into researching the life of Charles Sidney Gilpin. If you liked The Black Emperor of Broadway I would also recommend to you Rocketman.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of The Black Emperor of Broadway
Directed by – Arthur Egeli
Screenplay by – Ian Bowater
Based on – a play by Adrienne Earle Pender
Music by – Jason Solowsky
Cinematography by – Jonathan Mariande
Edited by – Phil Norden
Production/Distribution Companies – Egeli Productions & Vision Films
Starring – Shaun Parkes, John Hensley, Nick Moran, Liza Weil, Nija Okoro, Lonnie Farmer, Eve Annenberg, Nicholas Dorr, Heather Egeli, Alexandra Foucard, Daniel Washington, Sarah MacDonnell & Tim Misuradze
Rating – Around an Australia: M;