This adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play fills in the earlier life, showing the rise and fall of a black emperor of a Caribbean island.
Brutus Jones (Paul Robeson) says good-bye to his gal Dolly (Ruby Elzy) and sings at a black church meeting before leaving to become a Pullman porter. In New York he dances with Undine (Fredi Washington), girl of his friend Jeff (Frank C. Wilson). Visiting Undine, Brutus tells her he has been promoted to the President's car. There he is able to invest $300 in a merger, but he is sent back to Georgia. When she laughs at him, Brutus drops Undine in order to "travel light." In Savannah Brutus shoots craps against Jeff, and they fight over crooked dice. Jeff lies dead, and Brutus is put to work on a prison chain gang. After being clubbed by a guard, Brutus runs away, escaping to Dolly. He shovels coal on a steamer, jumps off, and swims to an island, where black men with rifles find him.
The black boss of the island sells Brutus to the cockney trader Smithers (Dudley Diggs). Brutus wins a crap game and becomes Smithers' partner. They give the boss a bill for $5,000. A man shoots blanks at Brutus, who says he has a charm and that only a silver bullet can kill him. He throws out the boss and proclaims himself emperor, raising taxes on rum and coffee in order to pay off the national debt. The Emperor Jones wears a gaudy uniform and holds court for the black lords and ladies; he sentences prisoners to fifty lashes. Smithers argues with Brutus, and the emperor threatens him. Smithers tells him that the palace is abandoned. Realizing he overplayed his hand, Brutus resigns. His gun has five lead bullets and a silver one for himself. Until his death Brutus hears a drum beating in increasing tempo. He can't find food. Hearing the ghost of Jeff snapping his fingers, he shoots him. Brutus runs through the forest and sees ghosts of the chain gang; he shoots the guard. Brutus realizes he did wrong; he asks forgiveness, sings, and prays. Seeing the ghost of a witch doctor, he shoots again. Then a man shoots Brutus with a silver bullet. Finally Smithers asks the dead Brutus where all his high and mighty airs are now.
The performance of Paul Robeson makes O'Neill's murky story memorable. Relying on luck, cheating, and bravado, the megalomaniac Brutus eventually returns to his Christian roots before being killed. Unable to get ahead in the United States, this ambitious black man manages to dominate an island for a time until his wrong-doing catches up with him.