Reel Reviews | Emperor

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

The story of a little known hero of the abolitionist movement who is credited with the start of the Civil War is given light in the epic drama, Emperor.

Shields Green (Dayo Okeniyi) is a leader on the Henderson Plantation. Everyone refers to him as “Emperor” because he is rumored to be the descendant of a king.  His wife, Sarah, works for Mister Henderson in the house.  His son, Tommy, listens to the stories read to the white children in the house and can read.  Life is good for the “king” until Mr. Henderson loses ownership of the plantation that is.  Once the new owner comes, everything changes.  And when the new overseer whips his son.  Emperor loses it all.  On the run for his life, Shields Green discovers what is worth fighting for.

“Inspired by a true legend,” Emperor is a fictional story about a real person written by Mark Amin (The Prince and Me) and Pat Charles (Black Lightning, Iron Fist) and also directed by Amin.  It stars Okeniyi, Kat Graham, Bruce Dern, Mykelti Williamson, M.C. Gainey, Naturi Naughton with Harry Lennix as Frederick Douglass, and James Cromwell as John Brown.

The performances in the movie are very good.  Harry Lennix looks a lot like the famous abolitionist Douglass and James Cromwell’s John Brown is a huge, more realistic departure from the version played by Ethan Hawke in The Good Lord Bird.  The anonymity of Shields Green allows Okeniyi the freedom to create the character and he does so convincingly portraying Green as a victim of circumstance instead of the cold calculating Negro his reputation made him out to be. 

All in all, the movie is an entertaining recount of the life of a man who was a runaway slave that met Frederick Douglass and John Brown and actually participated in the ill-fated raid at Harper’s Ferry.  In the beginning, this movie plays like the typical slavery story but near its middle, the story morphs into an old-style western complete with the typical guitar strum soundtrack.  It is at this point in time in the movie that Mark Amin “Tarantino’s” the screenplay and delves into recreating history instead of retelling it.

There is a danger in recreating history.  In the case of Shields Green, there is at least one monument erected to honor the accomplishments he made in the pre-Civil War era.  Instead of becoming a legacy to events of his life and a point of education for those who have no idea who he was, this story becomes a superhero tale, fit for a comic book adaptation.

Rated PG-13 for violence throughout, language including racial epithets, and some disturbing images, Emperor is a strong piece of fiction but it could have been an even stronger piece of fact.  At this time of history where facts are judged as either real or fake, It is important that our heroes stay just who they are and above reproach so instead of “inspired by” we can be “inspired from.”

Grade:  C+