Rebellion has come at last to end the reign of the Emperor Jones--formerly Pullman porter Brutus Jones in the States, twice a murderer there, and now a contemptuous monarch looting the blacks to whose obscure West Indies island he had come two years ago as a stowaway fugitive from a Southern chain gang.
Awakened in late afternoon by Smithers, his Cockney overseer, Jones, a tall and powerfully formed Negro of middle age, strides into his throne room in a blue uniform coat sprayed with brass and gold, pants of bright red, and brass-spurred patent leather boots. A pearl-handled revolver is at his belt.
In spite of Smithers' news that the blacks have taken to the hills to cast their spells upon him, the Emperor maintains his swaggering confidence. Throughout his rule, an eminence achieved largely through a legend that he could be killed only by a silver bullet, he has craftily "loaded de dice" for just such a day. Says he: "I ain't no fool. I knows dis emperor's time is sho't. What good is money if you stays back in dis raggedy country? When I sees dese niggers gettin' up dere nerve to turn me out and I'se got all de money in sight, I beats it quick."
His chuckle of confidence becomes a little forced when Smithers adds that the horses have been stolen, that it is a twelve-hour struggle through the great forest to the coast, "an' these blacks can sniff a trail in the dark like 'ounds." But Jones boasts: "Dawn tomorrow I be on de coast. Dat French gunboat takes me to Martinique, and dere I is safe wid a mighty big bank roll in my jeans."
From the hills comes the first faint, measured thumping of a tom-tom. For a moment, apprehension creeps into the Emperor's face, but still he will not admit fear. "Dose fool niggers don't known when dey's dealin' wid a man who's been a member in good standin' of de Baptist Church," he says.
So, with five lead bullets "fo' common bush niggers," and a silver one for himself should he be caught, he saunters out through the front door of the palace ("de Emperor leaves de way he comes"), and across the plain with a casual, "So long, white man."
But nightfall at the edge of the great black forest finds Jones shaken and exhausted as he throws himself on the ground to rest. The beat of the tom-tom seems louder and nearer. He gropes under the stones for the food he has hidden; he can find none. He lights a match but frantically extinguishes it as the beat of the drum seems to heighten. The trees become bewilderingly unfamiliar, and glittering eyes appear in the forest gloom.
Jones quavers: "Who dar? What's you? Git away f'om me befo' I shoots yo' up!" He fires into the darkness. With the shot, the tom-tom booms faster; the Emperor, hungry and now in terror, plunges into the forest, faced with hours of struggling through the brush to the relentless cadence of the pursuing drum.
At length, his hat lost and his uniform torn, he reels into a small clearing and stops to rest. Suddenly he hears a clicking noise and turns toward the sound. In the moonlight he sees the dim, crouching figure of a Negro, endlessly shaking dice. Jones joyfully rushes toward him with hand outstretched.
"Is dat yo', Jeff? I'se sho' mighty glad to see yo'! Dey tol' me yo' done died f'om dat razor cut I gives yo'...." Then, in panic: "Ain't yo' gwine look up? Can't yo' speak? Is yo' ... a ha'nt?" He jerks out his gun and shoots. The figure disappears, but the tom-tom takes on a faster tempo and Jones plunges blindly away through the trees, running now.
At eleven o'clock, his spurs and sweat-soaked coat discarded, he sees a misty road, with a gang of shackled Negro convicts at work. A white guard motions Jones to take his place in line, striking him with his whip. When the guard's back is turned, Jones springs to crash a shovel upon his skull, but his upraised hands are empty. "Ghost or debbil, I kill yo' again!" he bawls and fires at the guard's back. The road and the figures disappear, and Jones leaps off in even wilder flight.
He comes to another clearing and sinks in his rags before a stump to pray for forgiveness, for safety from the blacks, for an end to "dat drum soundin' in my ears." The clearing silently fills with Southern planters and belles in costumes of the 1850's, and he realizes that he is being offered at a slave auction. In delirious rage, he fires two shots at the auctioneer, then races on. He falls at last, utterly spent, but now a chorus of black men, swaying in ghostly unison, appears around him. He finds himself singing with them in aching sorrow and desolation, then staggers on, his moaning voice trailing after him to a more insistent, triumphant pulsation of the tom-tom.
Like a sleepwalker now, he comes to an altar-like structure of rock by a river and kneels before it. A witch doctor, body dyed red, with horns upon his headdress, prances from the trees and begins a chant of sacrifice. Jones suddenly knows that it is he who must offer himself. The priest summons from the river a gigantic crocodile, but Jones fires his last bullet of silver and his tormentors disappear. The Emperor lies with his face to the ground, whimpering in ultimate misery.
At dawn, at the edge of the forest exactly where Jones had entered it, are waiting Lem, the leader of the blacks, a few of his soldiers, and Smithers. The overseer is protesting scornfully that spending the night merely in beating the drum and "casting silly spells" is a waste of time, that the blacks should press on into the forest in their pursuit; but Lem says only: "We cotch him. You see."
Suddenly there is a snapping of twigs in the underbrush and the soldiers, at Lem's gesture, cock their rifles and glide among the trees. Shots are heard, accompanied by exultant yells. The beat of the tom-tom ceases. Says Lem: "I took um money, make um silver bullet. Make um strong charm, too." The soldiers reappear, carrying the body of the Emperor Jones.