Film review: The Black Emperor of Broadway

The Black Emperor of Broadway is the story of Charles S Gilpin over two decades in whicb he moved from traditional minstrel player to the Broadway lead in one of Eugene O’Neill’s greatest plays, The Emperor Jones.

Anchored by a towering performance by Shaun Parkes as Gilpin, which teases out every facet of this complex man, Arthur Egeli’s film is a character study which follows many regular biopic tropes.

Gilpin has ambition but also a chip on his shoulder. His marriage is not exactly troubled, but he takes his wife Florence for granted. He has to take a fall that dents his pride despite enormous success on Broadway.

Nick Moran as Jasper Dexter, Shaun Parkes as Charles Gilpin
Nick Moran as Jasper Dexter, Shaun Parkes as Charles Gilpin

The role of O’Neill, played by John Hensley, is rather one-note, but he is presented in some ways as a white mirror of Gilpin: they clash, they grudgingly admire each other, they find it hard to admit when they are wrong.

This film displays some beautiful photography in both exterior and interior shots (by Jonathan Mariande). There is music throughout from Jason Solowsky, perhaps a tad too much underscoring moments of speech, but stirring enough when needed.

The time and place from the mid-1910s to the end of the 1920s is richly drawn, although some moments are written and acted in a way which sometimes appears contrived and simplistic – notably the treatment given to Gilpin’s younger contemporary, Paul Robeson.

Attitudes within O’Neill’s provincial theatre group aside – and one telling late scene between white woman asking black man “do I know you from somewhere” – political and social attitudes towards race are not fully developed.

Nija Okuro as Florence Gilpin, Shaun Parkes as Charles Gilpin
Nija Okuro as Florence Gilpin, Shaun Parkes as Charles Gilpin

There is a believable forcefulness in Nija Okuro’s performance as Gilpin’s wife though: a woman who is thrilled for his success but also scared to see his dreams come crashing down. Beautifully directed and acted. and acted.

Director Egeli and screenwriter Ian Bowater have brought this play, by Adrienne Earle Pender, to the cinema screen with a view to rehabilitating the memory of a man once voted ‘Man of the Year’ in response to his work as Brutus Jones.

Lauded, but not quite accepted by the white audiences who were not quite sure what to make of him, Gilpin perhaps coped badly with the onset of fame and turned to drink. His ambition of finding future leading roles came to nothing, and a sad coda with a window of opportunity comes too late.

The Black Emperor of Broadway is a very watchable film about a fascinating character from theatre past. It premiered 15 September as a VOD release, and will be available on DVD from 6 October.

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Images courtesy Epec Media who also provided complimentary access to the film.