Emperor adds insight to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Fairy by shining a light on Shields Green, a hero that most Americans probably didn’t even learn about in American history books.
When learning about the years before the Civil War, history books teach us about John Brown’s (James Cromwell) raid. What they don’t do is teach us about Shields “Emperor” Green (Dayo Okeniyi). In some ways, I feel like 2020 has been such an educational year for learning about what we didn’t learn in school. Until this year, I never knew about the Tulsa Massacre or Juneteenth. Similarly, this film marks the first time in which I knew about Shields Green. And yet, Green is just the sort of figure that we should know about. But we don’t and this is a shame. It also goes to show just how white American history books can be until reaching the Civil Rights movement. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass are more familiar names to history during this moment in time.
Born into slavery in South Carolina, Shields Green was a descendant of African kings. He became an outlaw slave in the process of fighting for his family’s freedom. Green would make his way to Rochester where he met up with Frederick Douglass. This would prove to be pivotal for his future because Green would later meet abolitionist John Brown at Douglass’s home. This–in part–is how he ends up joining the raid on Harper’s Ferry. That Green could even connect to the two historical figures is a fact I didn’t know. Green was one of five African-Americans that fought even if history chose not to remember them. He had the chance to escape but chose to continue fighting. The film changes up the third act by revising history and having Green escape.
The raid on Harper’s Ferry would become a pivotal point in the lead-up to the Civil War. Brown and his men would kill four and wound nine. Ten of Brown’s men died. While five were able to escape, Brown would be captured along with seven others. Brown would be joined by John Anthony Copeland, Jr. and Shields Green in being hanged. A monument honors Green and two others in Oberlin. Regardless of his being hanged for treason, Shields Green is an American hero. He was fighting on the right side of history.
Mark Amin and Pat Charles take this largely unknown figure and give him the credit that he deserves. We get a depiction of both his life in slavery but also on the Underground Railroad and into his freedom and finally the raid on Harper’s Ferry. They make some changes in terms of history but the film certainly doesn’t feel like your traditional pre-Civil War biopic. Maybe it’s because of Brown’s involvement but the film has a Western feel to it.
An interesting thing to note about the casting. In portraying John Brown, James Cromwell now joins his father in portraying the American martyr on screen. His father, John, portrayed the abolitionist on screen in 1940.
Harry Lennix portrays Frederick Douglass. Douglass provides a strong contrast to Brown. The two want the same solution but have a different way of going about it.
Dayo Okeniyi draws from his own personal experiences in his portrayal. He delivers a memorable performance, too. Don’t forget his name because Okeniyi isn’t going away anytime soon.
In terms of the music, Diane Warren will certainly be in the mix for Best Original Song so please listen during the end credits. It’s just a question of if the film qualifies. I’d have to double check but I’m not sure that Emperor even got any sort of a VOD release before today.
The film was originally set for a theatrical release in March before theaters shut down. I kind of wish I had the chance to watch in a theatrical environment because this is the kind of film that requires such an experience. Unfortunately, it just isn’t meant to be.
Emperor depicts an important piece of American history and gives Shields Green his due years after being forgotten.
DIRECTOR: Mark Amin
SCREENWRITERS: Pat Charles and Mark Amin
CAST: Dayo Okeniyi, Ben Robson, James Cromwell, Kat Graham, Keean Johnson, James Le Gros, Harry Lennix, Naturi Naughton, Mykelti Williamson, and Bruce Dern