The truth is often less exciting, less inspirational than fiction. My presumption for this is not because the truth lacks power, but that our individual imaginations build up ideas until they are larger than any one person or concept. It’s perhaps why Mark Amin’s directorial feature debut Emperor takes the liberties it does because the myth of a man is more engaging, more courageous, more worthy of legend than the truth. Amin’s film, co-written by Pat Charles (CW’s Black Lightning), presents a pivotal moment in the life of Shields Green, a pre-Civil War slave who would take part in the famous Harpers Ferry raid in 1859, an event believed to be pivotal in the start of war for abolition. Despite some very clear liberties being taken with the truth, Emperor is a strong gateway for those less familiar with one of history’s lesser known significant leaders.
Emperor opens with a note that the film is “based on a true legend,” which is apt as the story of Shields Green can mainly be found online through a variety of less than credible sources. For this take on the tale, Green (portrayed by Dayo Okeniyi) works on a plantation in South Carolina, serving as the field manager, and often called “emperor” for his fabled. He, his family, and the other slaves seem to be treated kindly by their master, Duvane Henderson (Paul Scheer), but that changes when new plantation owner Randolph Stevens (M.C. Gainey) takes control. When an incident resulting in Shields’s son Thomas (Trayce Malachi) receiving several whip lashes, Shields is overcome with rage and attacks the new overseer. Recognizing that the penalty for such an action will result in death, he runs and heads straight for the Underground Railroad. Unsure who to trust on his trek north and dodging a dogged bounty hunter named Luke McCabe (Ben Robson), Shields finds himself the accidental symbol of insurrection that’s been building within the United States for some time.
When seeing the trailer for Emperor, my first reaction was the same as the feeling I received watching the film American Outlaws (2001). You know it’s based on historical figures, but the film seems determined to create something kinetic, setting it apart from the more turgid approaches of history. Emperor finds the balance in being entertaining and highly engaging, due to strong performances and the scripts’ adaptation of the material, while it also possesses an emotional weight that doesn’t betray the historical context. Set roughly around the 1850s, the characters are presented as faithfully to the era as possible from interpersonal relationships, social expectations, and the limits of generosity. As the child of a historian, there are many stories which are rarely told and more which never transcend to the light of day. As the United States faces its past, one which is not as far gone as many would argue, stories of Black history, stories like Shields Green’s should be more common place. By maintaining a strong level of accuracy on the era, you can feel Charles’s influence on the story moreso than Amin’s. This is not a bad thing because the direction follows the energy set forth by the script the two wrote, one which captures the true terror of not knowing which words might set off those who are legally allowed to do whatever they wish with another’s body and how those you expect to be allies may be bittersweet foes. Keep this in mind when you look at the cast list and see recognizable names like James Cromwell, Mykelti Williamson, Bruce Dern, and Keean Johnson. Audiences expect character actor Gainey to play despicable individuals, but the script allows for surprises a rapt audience will be caught by.
Even though Amin and Charles’s script takes some license with the truth, Emperor is a largely engaging piece. Much of this is due to a captivating performance from Okeniyi who carries the extreme burden of being human and mythic all in one. We’re meant to empathize with and be inspired by Shields and, if not for Okeniyi, it’s likely the audience would not. Not for a lack of trying, mind you, it’s that the story is more about Shields’s journey, so the other characters tend to be less explored. This is well and good when Frederick Douglass (Harry Lennix) appears, chatting with Cromwell’s abolitionist John Brown, as history tends to remember Brown well and Douglass greatly, so the weight remains perpetually on Okeniyi’s shoulders to have the audience invest in Shields. One of the benefits of the period-based tale is that the audience already understands the most basic concepts of the Shields’s “enemies” — ethnocentric bigots — so they can be glossed over, but the film goes out of its way to introduce McCabe as an adversary for Shields and feels mostly as a means of ensuring the audience never forgets that people are after Shields and that his kin remain in trouble. Honestly, it’s boring to attempt to make any such bigot sympathetic, a bullet Amin and Charles dodge easily, but the script does so much to build up McCabe for roughly no reason except to give Emperor a more cinematic ending that the character’s continued appearance grates. Robison is fun in the roll, as much fun as a bounty hunter can be, but at least Robison makes it clear he’s only in it for the money and not the ethics. Small favors? Perhaps. But it’s a mildly important distinction.
With the exception of some strange scene structure at the front and an odd initial introduction for Robison’s McCabe, the whole of Emperor is a solid affair. It treats the era with authenticity, eschewing the usual white-washing for a presentation that doesn’t look away from the nastier bits of our country’s history. It’s quite impressive what Emperor gets away with at only a PG-13 rating, as nothing feels short-changed or avoided. If you’re willing to set aside truth for 100 minutes and allow the legend to take hold, you’ll find yourself rooting for a new emperor.
No special features included on the DVD.
Available on DVD and digital beginning August 18th, 2020.
For more information, head to the official Emperor website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.