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Shields Green was a Black man, formerly enslaved, who participated in abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal. He was caught there with Brown, put on trial, and executed, giving his life because he tried to steal weapons for those who’d fight to end slavery.
That’s not heroic enough for Mark Amin’s Emperor, a hacky adventure that imagines Shields’ picaresque journey from slavery to rebellion, then gives him a happy ending instead of the gallows. In Amin’s defense, the cliche-ridden script he penned with Pat Charles says at the beginning that it’s “the legend of” the man nicknamed Emperor; it takes multiple other opportunities to suggest that an inspiring yarn is better than mere facts. But Emperor is no Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and turning Shields into a generic adventurer (albeit one played with gravitas by Dayo Okeniyi) disserves both the real man and viewers who might think this story is remotely true.
RELEASE DATE Aug 18, 2020
A prelude imagines Green as a baby, held by a mother who tells him “your grandpa was a king, and you will be…an emperor.” As in Beyoncé’s Black Is King, this idealization of monarchs seems wrongheaded, or at least out of sync with our times. But it serves the fictional Green well, as he grows into a smart and capable man — who directs operations on a plantation whose owner, Duvane Henderson, brags to buddies that a slave as overseer is “better than a white man you have to pay.”
Henderson is played by Paul Scheer, a very funny actor whose presence here is puzzling. As the film progresses, several cast members look like they’d be more comfortable in a Drunk History short; others just look like they’d be more comfortable working for somebody with experience directing actors. Okeniyi’s strong performance is the only really credible thing in the film’s first half; veterans James Cromwell and Bruce Dern help somewhat in the tale’s final act, as the Harpers Ferry mission becomes the picture’s focus.
But before that, Emperor has difficulty mustering a seriousness to match its subject. When his plantation is lost to mustache-twirling villains, Green is blamed for others’ failures and tortured. He endures this stoically, but when his son is whipped for the crime of being able to read, Green gets into a confrontation that leaves three men dead.
Going on the run, Green has little encounters with a bank robber, a fugitive slave and a Samaritan or two. Amin stages scenes that will feel inappropriate to many viewers — since Green just watched his wife die, it’s not much fun to see him try to take a bath while a beautiful stranger stands two feet away, curious about this fugitive.
Elsewhere, action sequences are too swashbuckling to suit a story this grim. Several of these incidents are misinterpreted by local authorities, raising the bounty on Green’s head and causing him to become a folk hero. “You’re not just a runaway slave any more,” one stranger informs him, “you’re a symbol.” But the film’s pacing and drama never convince us this is really happening, as last year’s Queen & Slim did, and little nuggets of adventure often feel dishonest or tacked-on.
Green makes his way up north, where he meets John Brown (Cromwell) and Frederick Douglass (Harry Lennix). The two famous men disagree about the morality and wisdom of Brown’s planned violence, and Green sides with the white man: “I cannot sit idle while this man fights for me.”
The actual raid on the armory, and the ensuing confrontation between Brown and Robert E. Lee (James LeGros) has a rushed, low-budget quality, probably because Amin wants to save something for his ill-conceived fantasy ending — which has an action-hero Green leaping away from fireball explosions and foiling anybody who thinks he’ll ever be a slave again.
Production company: Sobini Films Distributor: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment (Available Tuesday, August 18 on digital)
Cast: Dayo Okeniyi, James Cromwell, Ben Robson, Kat Graham, Mykelti Williamson, Bruce Dern, Naturi Naughton, Trayce Malachi, James LeGros, Harry Lennix, Paul Scheer
Director: Mark Amin
Screenwriters: Mark Amin, Pat Charles
Producers: Mark Amin, Reginald Hudlin, Cami Winikoff
Executive producers: Tyler Boehm, Susan Kirr
Director of photography: Jeremy Rouse
Production designer: Richard Hoover
Costume designer: Amy Andrews
Editor: Asaf Eisenberg
Composer: Javier Navarrete
Casting director: Mary Vernieu
PG-13, 99 minutes
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