‘Emperor’ Review: A Runaway Slave Joins the Raid on Harpers Ferry in Forgotten Tale of Black Heroism

As statues to Confederate heroes are torn down around the country, the question of whom to honor in their place poses an intriguing challenge — one that writer-director Mark Amin seems to have anticipated with his abolitionist adventure movie “Emperor.” Essentially a filmic monument to a scarcely documented American hero, “Emperor” tells the virtually unknown story of Shields Green, a descendant of African royalty who was born into slavery and later escaped, making it to freedom before risking his life in the attack on Harpers Ferry.

When history books speak of that famous raid, they tend to focus on John Brown, the white militant who planned the action hoping it would incite a slave uprising in the South — which gives an accurate but incomplete picture. “Emperor” re-centers the telling, broadening this early “white savior” story to include the Black men who joined the cause — or, in the case of Frederick Douglass, chose to abstain from what sure felt like a suicide mission.

Figures like Green tend to have been scrubbed from American history for reasons both practical (obstacles to literacy, lack of documentation) and political (deliberate attempts to suppress stories that might inspire uprisings). Or, as the opening narration of “Emperor” puts it, “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.” But unlike “12 Years a Slave,” adapted from the personal account of a free Black man kidnapped and sold into servitude (albeit 20 years before the Civil War), Amin’s conception of Green’s exploits relies largely on his (and co-writer Pat Charles’) imagination.

Many of the characters are composites or invented out of whole cloth, and the script fabricates an upbeat last act after Harpers Ferry (including a mind-boggling stunt in which Green can be seen leaping from an exploding bell tower, over a 100-foot cliff into the saving water below) that belies the fact he was captured and hanged for treason. No matter.

In the vein of Nate Parker’s ill-fated Nat Turner biopic “The Birth of a Nation” (a powerful film whose potential cultural moment was hijacked by unresolved rape claims against its director-star), “Emperor” has found a Black hero to champion during this dark chapter of American history. Broad and occasionally too simplistic at times, both films look to the Mel Gibson model in depicting a figure forged by suffering who rises up to lead a rebellion, although Amin doesn’t lean quite so heavily on victimization and revenge to hook his audience. Then again, that restraint may owe more to the film’s PG-13 rating than to any particular ideological convictions.

A striking discovery, Dayo Okeniyi will be unfamiliar to most in the lead role. He played a small part as District 11 tribute Thresh in “The Hunger Games,” and appears opposite Jennifer Lopez in “Shades of Blue,” but “Emperor” is effectively his breakout, which makes him feel as much a revelation to audiences as Green’s story will be. Okeniyi comes across proud and upstanding, his spirit resilient despite years of slavery, which puts him in the company of such silver-screen heroes as Spartacus and Ben-Hur. Cross those classic heroes with the Wakandan king of “Black Panther,” and you’ve got “Emperor,” a figure mightier than the movie Amin has created for him.

Given his roots, Green holds a position of some respect on his South Carolina plantation, for which he is targeted and made an example — strung up and branded with a hot poker — when a new owner (M.C. Gainey) takes over the property. Green accepts the abuse that’s heaped upon him, but snaps when he discovers that his son Tommy (Trayce Malachi) has been lashed for reading; he confronts the foreman (Brad Carter) responsible, killing several white men in his rage. With blood on his hands, Green makes a break for it, sparking an escape that will remind some of last year’s “Harriet.”

Where Harriet Tubman paved the way, Green must improvise his own path. With an oddly glamorous Texas bounty hunter (Ben Robson) on his tail and the price on his head steadily climbing, Green heads north, meeting up with many colorful characters — too many, one might argue — on his trek, including a bank robber (Keean Johnson) a bit too eager to see his face on a wanted poster, a helpful house slave (Kat Graham) and Underground Railroad ally Levi Coffin (Bruce Dern), who shelters him for a time. These interactions feel rushed, but then, Green has somewhere to be, and Amin doesn’t show much aptitude for suspense.

The director teases the Harpers Ferry raid at the outset and circles back to it late in the film. Amin imagines how Green met John Brown (James Cromwell), but doesn’t have to extrapolate much about his interaction with Frederick Douglass (Harry Lennix), as that meeting has been documented. It makes for one of the film’s most stirring scenes, as Green explains his motives for joining Brown in such a dangerous mission. “This man will never be a slave,” he says. “And yet he’s willing to risk his life and the life of his sons so we can be free.”

Green’s words serve as a declaration of solidarity between African Americans and their allies — those who join the crusade for equality even when it may not benefit them directly — that has only gained in relevance amid the summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. “Emperor” was made before the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and should have been released in theaters on March 27, were it not for the coronavirus outbreak. The storytelling may be imperfect, even clunky at times, but it’s curious that Universal seems to be dumping the film to DVD, considering what “Emperor” represents at this moment. As problematic figures fall, here’s one who is deserving of a pedestal.

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