(out of 5)
Paul Robeson‘s signature stage role is also one of his best-remembered films, adapted liberally from the play by Eugene O’Neill. He goes to the big city as a train porter but quickly gets into trouble with the law after a bar fight accidentally turns deadly. Doing hard labour in prison, Robeson gets fed up with inhumane treatment by the guards and commits another crime, forcing him to skip town and get work on a steamship bound for the Caribbean. After finding himself on a tiny island and usurping its leader, Robeson becomes a local monarch but, soon enough, his corrupt ways catch up with him. Some terrific production numbers and gorgeous art direction (just look at the dazzling nightclub set) are memorable and Robeson himself is every inch the superstar, though don’t be surprised if much of the drama seems stiff and dated by now (not to mention the free use of the N word that might jar modern sensibilities). The climactic sequence, a colourized monologue of Robeson facing his sins alone in the jungle, is powerfully performed, but its theatrical nature is uncomfortably at odds with the more cinematic action that was invented for this film version.
Directed by Dudley Murphy
Cinematography by Ernest Haller
Music by Frank Tours
Production Design by Herman Rosse
Film Editing by Grant Whytock
The Criterion Collection