Emperor is the highly fictionalised story of real life slave-turned-fighter Shields Green, who was also called ‘Emperor’.
The movie starts with a deeply powerful narration. “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.” That is quite the statement of intent but, given the disgraceful amount of Lost Cause revisionist history that cinema has been responsible for, one that must be applauded.
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Sadly, Emperor fails to follow through on this initial promise. It takes a real life figure from history of whom relatively little is known and attempts to build a mythology and story of triumph over adversity around him. Yet despite incorporating murder, the underground railroad, the desperation of a father to save his son, and one of the most evocative and still controversial events of American history – the raid of Harpers Ferry led by John Brown – Emperor still manages to be an uninspiring, plodding affair. Throughout the film no cliche is left unencountered, from the cocky young wannabe-famous outlaw or the helpful slave who betrays Shields to the comrade in arms reading a letter from the girl he’s going to go back and free when this is all over. There are a few standout action scenes, but they are few and far between.
What is the point of creating a fictionalised life of a historic character and failing to inject some level of passion? Shields feels like a continued victim of circumstance rather than a strong protagonist. Despite being portrayed as a competent and intelligent character, a fact even noted on by one of the racist overseers who watched Shields, he moves from mishap to calamity without ever seeming to have any real plan or strategy. He is less the protagonist in his own movie, and more an unlucky pinball bouncing off pantomime villains and actual historic characters.
Another question is what responsibility does a film purporting to allow a ‘black man to tell his own story’ have towards that very same man? How much artistic license should be granted in the telling? It is hard to comment too strongly here without risking spoilers, but there is a degree of insincerity in taking a real person and not just changing, but completely reversing key moments in their life to fit a movie narrative, when that movie sells itself as that person’s story. Erasure of Black History is a real concern, and ignoring sacrifices made to give a more ‘Hollywood’ ending to a film is less of a celebration of a man’s life and more like a cheapening of it.
Despite struggling to build any kind of empathy or interest in the story of Shields, the film does reach some kind of dramatic crescendo. Yet any pathos that has been created is instantly squandered by the disturbingly intrusive pop ballad ‘I’ll Get There’ which heralds the start of the credits. It is no reflection on the quality of the song itself, or the singer Emeli Sandė, to say that this is a jarring and out of place piece that slaps the viewer in the face just as they are asked to consider how important the Harpers Ferry raid was.
If this movie is worth watching, it is because of the performances of an excellent cast who rise above the uninspired dialogue and two-dimensional characters, particularly those of James Cromwell as John Brown and Dayo Okeniyi as Shields Green. Ironically, it is these performances that remind us what could have been. Especially with Okeniyi, where his abilities feel criminally underused, as the actor spends most of the movie having to pull faces due to the pain he is in, either physical or emotional. We are left feeling that both he and Shields deserved better.
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In the end the audience would be forgiven for leaving with a bad taste in their mouth, asking why they just watched an uninspiring, fictional story of an inspirational, real life person. Because of the subject matter the filmmakers have our support and sympathy from the beginning, and it is galling to have these squandered by a mediocre, lacklustre, and by-the-numbers affair.
This is an important time in American history, and it is one that cinema has too often failed to do justice to. This movie feels particularly poignant in the wake of the BLM protests that ripped through the country last summer, and films in general need to do more to celebrate and empower people of colour. In all fairness, without a doubt this is a well-intentioned attempt to redress that balance, but sadly it still ends up feeling like another missed opportunity. Though you may not be inspired by the story of Emperor, you may be inspired by its goal. Hopefully other filmmakers will be. Let’s see what happens next.
Emperor is out on Digital on 1st March and DVD from 5th April from Kaleidoscope Entertainment.