MOVIE REVIEW OF “EMPEROR”

Freshman writer & director Mark Amin and co-scenarist Pat Charles shed long-overdue light on Shields Green, an obscure black runaway slave and his role in the ill-fated raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in “Emperor” (** OUT OF ****), their groundbreaking but half-baked biography that takes outlandish liberties with history.

Shoehorning a surplus of history into a scant 100 minutes requires a bit of creativity, and Amin and Charles have given the facts a face-lift to make them palatable. Early in “Emperor,” Green’s mother instills a sense of royalty in her infant son, and he acquires his noble nickname as a consequence. It isn’t surprising for Hollywood to resurrect a long-forgotten soul with so little written about him and then distort that truth for a happy ending.

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Searching for Shields Green in history books can be a daunting ordeal, but “Emperor” should considerably bolster Green’s fame. Although he lacks the eminence of Harriett Tubman, Gabriel Prosser, and Nat Turner, this African American slave carved out a footnote for himself in history books when he participated in John Brown’s infamous 1859 raid. Basically, the first half of “Emperor” presents Green’s life before Harper’s Ferry. Meantime, the second half drastically alters Green’s doomed biography for an upbeat ending.

Primarily, “Emperor” qualifies as a tragedy. After losing his wife to an assassin’s bullet, Green plunged into self-imposed exile. He never saw his son again after he joined John Brown in an abortive attempt to dismantle slavery. Driven by Green’s desire to liberate his son from the shackles of slavery, the filmmakers depict Shields Green in a wholly sympathetic light. Sometimes, Hollywood tampers with history as Amin and Charles have in “Emperor” so audiences will feel good about the outcome. In this instance, had the filmmakers adhered to the truth, “Emperor” might have carried greater clout.

“Emperor” unfolds with the words “inspired by a true legend,” and Amin and Charles take more ‘inspired’ dramatic license than necessary to justify their version of Green’s life. Next, a hostile voice utters an ultimatum: “The  history of the Civil War was written by white men to serve their own agenda. It’s time for a black man to tell his own story. This is my father’s story told the only way I know how. The legend of the Emperor.”

Amin gives us our first glimpse of Shields Green (Dayo Okeniyi of “Terminator Genisys”) armed and riding in formation with abolitionist John Brown (James Cromwell of “L.A. Confidential”) and his sons. Assembling a racially mixed force of 23 armed men, Brown storms the poorly defended armory at Harper’s Ferry. During the fracas, Shields is wounded. He loses consciousness, allowing the filmmakers to use a flashback to recount his past. Born into slavery, Shields grows up to become the chief intermediary between the owner and the slaves on a South Carolina plantation.

Unfortunately, plantation owner Duvane Henderson (Paul Scheer of “Piranha 3DD”) struggles with a gambling addiction. Making one wager too many, Henderson loses everything in a poker game. The change of ownership at the plantation ushers in pandemonium. First, Shields clashes with the new overseer, Hank Beaumont (Patrick Roper of “Killerman”), about a dire shortage of seeds required for planting.

Since the illiterate overseer cannot perform basic arithmetic, Beaumont bungles the amount of seeds necessary. When Shields attributes the error to Beaumont, the new plantation owner, Randolph Stevens (M.C. Gainey of “Con-Air”), strings Shields up by his heels. Beaumont enjoying searing Shields’ back with a branding iron. Second, Beaumont nabs Shields’ adolescent son, Tommy (Trayce Malachi of “Test Group”), with a book which belonged to the former plantation owner. Beaumont whips him on the grounds of theft. In a blind rage, Sheilds shoots Beaumont twice, and then flees with his wife accompanying him. During their flight, a bullet strikes Sarah (Naturi Naughton of “Notorious”), and she dies in her husband’s arms!

Setting out with freedom as his goal in the North, Shields follows the Underground Railroad. Eventually, he encounters not only John Brown, but also Frederick Douglass (Harry Lennix of NBC’s “Blindspot”), and Douglass tries to dissuade Brown from attacking the armory. Indeed, Amin and Charles gloss over the actual predicament because the Harper’s Ferry raid was far more complicated than they could reenact it on their low budget.

Brown had convinced himself he could trigger a slave rebellion like Nat Turner did in 1831. Moreover, the irrational abolitionist abducted wealthy slave owners as hostages to serve as bargaining chips. Equipped with rifles, revolvers, and pikes, Brown and his followers storm the armory and occupy it. Ultimately, U.S. Marines arrive under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee (James LeGros of “Drugstore Cowboy”) and defeat Brown’s army. Colonel Lee takes both Brown and Green captive.

The two are sentenced to die on the gallows for their uprising. Instead, Amin and company change history. Green escapes from captivity, takes refuge in a church, then eludes bounty hunters by plunging from the church belfry and then riding away with his son.

Despite its deeply flawed historical content, “Emperor” boasts exemplary performances, especially from newcomer Dayo Okeniyi as the title character. James Cromwell plays John Brown as an even-handed optimist who reckoned he could deliver a death’s blow to slavery in with his raid. In the classic Errol Flynn & Ronald Reagan western “Santa Fe Trail” (1941), Brown was portrayed as a tyrant.

Unfortunately, most of the Caucasian Americans amount to mean-spirited stereotypical villains straight out of the bestselling novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Ironically, Mykelti Williamson gives a scene-stealing performance as Truesdale, a duplicitous villain who tricks Green into lowering his guard long enough for him to take him prisoner at gunpoint for the thousand-dollar reward on his head.

Celebrating Shields Green for his exploits as a runaway slave and a belligerent who served alongside John Brown is commendable, since few people knew about him. However, making sweeping revisions to Green’s life for the sake of a happily ever after ending undermines the sacrifices Green made against slavery.

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