Paul Robeson did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones.
Paul Robeson plays the lead role and the film seems like it was made to be a showcase for his various talents particularly in the odd often absurd way the film progresses. The film starts out simply enough as Brutus is simply excited to start his good new job on a train with his wife by his side. This part seems to try to show off Robeson as a charming romantic lead, and Robeson is indeed charming enough enough in these scenes. These scenes though suggests the problem with the film, and the limitations on Robeson's performance. We see his romantic scenes but the film never goes into very much detail about them. We see parts of it but the story never seems to get into the meat of it. Robeson is just fine in these moments but before you know it old Brutus has been arrested and is sent of to jail. Once in jail we get the musical portion of his performance.
Robeson has a powerful voice, and the film managed to get it the song easily enough since it is prisoners singing while working, but honestly it does not necessarily seem to fit to Brutus's character as a whole. You don't get to dwell on that for long though since it is only in a moment that he's beaten up a guard and escaped. This moment briefly gives us Robeson as bit of a darker side to Brutus, and in all honesty this is probably his best moment. Robeson comes across the strongest in the scene, and actually seems to utilize film as he delivers the intensity in Brutus through his eyes. We again don't get this for long as Brutus has to escape to an island where he teams up with a merchant to gain some power. This is where things go a bit off since the story telling seems even more rushed than it was before, and it leaves Robeson to really rush through every change in Brutus far too quickly.
Suddenly Brutus becomes a con man as he fools everyone into thinking he's invincible by putting blanks in a gun and proclaiming that only a silver bullet can kill him. Robeson actually has a bit fun in portraying the deviousness of Brutus with a sly grin, but he never makes sense of this extreme character change in Brutus. We simply must by it but the writing never allows that to be possible and nor can Robeson salvage the lack of material. Soon enough though Brutus is the Emperor of the island where he mistreats the people. Unfortunately we are only really told this and this just instantly happens. Robeson seems to be even a little caught off guard this time since he just sticks to the conman approach for the character. This then instantly proceeds to the overthrow period where Brutus wrong off to have a prolonged monologue into madness, which again just is not earned.
Robeson is definitely a theatrical performer here, which is not out of the ordinary for the period, but unlike some actors from the period Robeson does not act perfectly attuned to the medium. The camera only seems to be in his mind in a few short instances and his performance seems more for the non-existent stage audience to witness from a distance. This is especially noticeable in this breakdown scene as Robeson physically and mentally decays in all too specific of way. Robeson is not bad and there is a certain power to the scene but it is limited because it never really felt at all natural to the character. There is no through line in the film or in Robeson's performance for the character to make him seem like a singular man. He often feels like a different character from scene to scene. Robeson has some good moments here and there and obviously shows a lot of promise, but very little of that promise comes to surface through the film's lacking direction and story.