‘Black Emperor’ Q&A

(Above: Shaun Parkes as ‘The Black Emperor of Broadway.’ courtesy Vision Films and Egeli Productions)

The Black Emperor of Broadway, following a festival run that included the Brooklyn Film Festival and the Macon Film Festival, premieres online today.

Based on a true story from the early 1920s, the movie tells the story of playwright Eugene O’Neill’s historic casting of a Black actor — Charles Gilpin — as the lead in Broadway’s The Emperor Jones.

The Black Emperor of Broadway can be rented from Amazon, $3.99 for Prime subscribers, $4.99 for non-subscribers. You can also see it free if your local library is part of the Hoopla service, or for $4.99 from Vudu, FandangoNow, iTunes and Microsoft.

The Savvy Screener recently spoke with The Black Emperor of Broadway’s director/producer Arthur Egeli (below right) about the film.

TSS: How did you come up with the idea for ‘The Black Emperor of Broadway’?

Arthur Egeli: My longtime co-writer, Ian Bowater, and I were developing a story about the rise of Eugene O’Neill. His breakout play was staged just a block from my house, so I knew the man, the legend, the stories…or so I thought. Then Ian called me from Raleigh, North Carolina because he just watched Adrienne Pender’s play N, and I realized O’Neill wasn’t the man I thought he was. I realized his rise to fame was on the shoulders of another man, Charles Gilpin.

TSS: What was it like on the festival circuit during the pandemic?

Egeli: The festival circuit was certainly disappointing. You work hard on a film for years hoping one day to take a bow in front of a live audience, and then you just get a “Zoom” interview.

TSS: Had you hoped to release the film theatrically, but changed plans due to the pandemic?

The Black Emperor of Broadway

Egeli: Yes, all the plans changed. But, of course, a theatrical release, the brass ring for an independent filmmaker like me, was just out of the question.

TSS: Concurrent with the pandemic came the current outcry for racial justice. Do you see ‘The Black Emperor of Broadway’ as playing any role in that conversation?

Egeli: I think the film if nothing else is an educational tool for white audiences to try and understand what it is to be the minority, and further, to be a minority that whites think they know everything about. Just working with the Black actors on this film was an inspiring, and at the same time an emotional, experience. Most them hadn’t had the opportunities that I had in the movie business, despite the fact that they went to even better schools than me.

TSS: Were any Blacks involved with the movie in key roles other than acting?

Egeli: The original play was written by Adrienne Earle Pender, who was related to Charles Gilpin. From the start, I worked with Seneeca Wilson as the costume designer and Janey David in makeup and hair. I have to admit, there weren’t Black crew members in my circle. I tend to want to work with crew whom I have already worked with. I suppose this is another problem if you are Black and trying to break into the business.

John Carter Hensley, The Black Emperor of Broadway

TSS: Jack Nicholson received an Academy Award nomination for playing O’Neill in Warren Beatty’s 1981 film, “Reds.” We don’t believe Gilpin has ever been portrayed before on screen. How do you think John Carter Hensley (right) and Shaun Parkes fared in these roles?

Egeli: I was very happy that Shaun Parkes wanted to take on the role of Glipin, and I certainly was blown away by his performance, especially since his native accent is from London. John Hensley completely became O’Neill, and this was important because he could be convincing when he demanded that Gilpin follow his script to a T. Whoever played O’Neill couldn’t worry if he was the villain or the hero — though he certainly is the villain in this piece. 

TSS: How did you hook up with Vision Films?

Egeli: I met Lise Romanoff when she picked up my last movie, Murder on the Cape, for distribution. She did such a good job on that film for me that I was happy she wanted to distribute this one too.

TSS: What do you hope viewers take away from watching ‘The Black Emperor of Broadway’?

Egeli: I hope audiences realize that no man can rise to the height of his career alone, nor should he. I hope that Charles Gilpin will have the same  fame that O’Neill enjoyed, and at least they will know that one man couldn’t have happened without the other.

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