Many have interpreted Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones as an exploration of the legacy of slavery and racism in America, and it is undeniable that these themes feature prominently in the narrative core of the play. Additionally, scholars have claimed that the play has a broader political symbology, in that it tells the story of autocracy and colonialism gone astray, and serves to expose the hypocrisies and indignities of U.S. imperialism in Haiti in the beginning of the 20th century.
O'Neill himself stated that the play's central character was based on the catastrophic rule of Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, the fifth president in five years in Haiti, who ruled for several months in 1915 and was an ally to American imperial forces. Sam's rule represented for O'Neill the moral and literal failure of American imperialism, and O'Neill's play was aligned with the views of his literary peers, who had sharp critiques of imperialism and a desire to expose its contradictions.
Critic Mary A. Renda devotes an entire chapter of her book Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940, to an analysis of O'Neill's influence on American perception of Haiti. She regards The Emperor Jones as a complicated relic of the era, writing, "A complex and contradictory text, The Emperor Jones conveyed a radical critique of imperialism as economic exploitation even as it participated in the discourses of civilization and exotic primitivism that sustained the occupation in Haiti...O'Neill's play provides a window onto U.S. America's renewed fascination with Haiti in the 1920s." In her mind, the play is complicated in that it seeks to articulate a critique of capitalism and imperialism, but remains ultimately ambivalent, more concerned with the rendering of black bodies and the dramatization of black lives than in the clear articulation of injustice.