In 1920 the biggest stage in the world was Broadway, and it’s leading man was Black – The Black Emperor of Broadway

“One day my fame will be over. No one will remember me, or that a Negro can do great things.” Charles Gilpin, The Black Emperor of Broadway

Out September 15 on VOD is the biopic THE BLACK EMPEROR OF BROADWAY, which depicts the rise and tragic fall of Charles Gilpin – considered to be the most successful African-American actor in the early 20th century.

Here’s the synopsis: In 1920, the king of Broadway, playwright Eugene O’Neill (John Hensley) cast Charles Gilpin (Shaun Parkes) as the lead in his new play, “The Emperor Jones.” At a time when roles of color were played by white men in blackface, Gilpin became the first Black actor to play a lead role. The play made stars of both Gilpin and O’Neill, but when Gilpin took issue with O’Neill’s liberal use of the “n” word in the script, altering the language in performances, he was fired though his acclaimed performance has changed Broadway forever.

The movie is inspired by the play “N” by Adrienne Earle Pendern – a playwright and descendent of Gilpin – with a screenplay written by Ian Bowater. Pender’s play also explored the tumultuous relationship between O’Neill and Gilpin, with the former achieving his first commercially successful play due in large part to Gilpin’s performance. However the tension between the two, as depicted in the film, comes to a head leading to the latter’s termination.

At its best, The Black Emperor of Broadway is a great primer or introduction to the life of a man that many in the general public do not know, which makes the quote above – spoken by lead actor Parkes (“Lost in Space,” “The Mummy Returns”) – all the more poignant.

It’s also a great history lesson, with W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson all portrayed – by Lonnie Farmer, Fred Biddle and Daniel Washington respectively.

However, while the film took care to mention several highs and lows during Gilpin’s journey – like him being the first African American honored by the New York Drama League, with a later attempt to have him disinvited from the ceremony due to race – there are several salient issues depicted too rapidly or glossed over.

Gilpin’s struggles with alcoholism and the deterioration of his first marriage being a prime example. I absolutely love how his relationship with Florence (Nija Okoro,“Insecure,” “The Deuce”) was depicted, and enjoyed the displays of encouragement and support of his artistry. So it was disheartening to watch how quickly it dissolved and how underdeveloped that dissolution appears on-screen.

The end result is the story plays out more like an extended after-school special, albeit one with good performances, than a fully fleshed out feature.

In sum, I think the film is successful with encouraging audiences to learn more about Charles Gilpin, or to revisit his story if you’re already familiar, and I was entertained enough by it and the performances. Yet, I believe it is a rushed production and should have delved more into topics it instead gently touched. I would rate it 2.5 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.

THE BLACK EMPEROR OF BROADWAY is available next Tuesday on VOD. Get additional info, find out where to watch and pre-order the DVD at the official website

Until next thought, Thomasena

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