“Our deaths will be the spark that lights the fuse of rebellion” – Emperor (Film Review)

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Emperor is not a film that should feature two explosions.

Mark Amin writes and directs alongside screenwriter Pat Charles to make this action-packed film loosely based on the true story of Shields Green, the slave turned rebel who joined John Brown in the fight for abolition in the late 1850s. And it is incredibly loosely based. So loosely in fact, that it is verging on insulting.

We meet Shields Green (Dayo Okeniyi), believed to be descended from an African king, and affectionately known as Emperor, working as an overseer on a plantation in South Carolina. The owner is a heavy gambler and although he is a “kind” owner (yep) he loses the plantation in a bet to Randolph Stevens (M.C. Gainey). Stevens puts a new overseer in place, Hank Beaumont (Patrick Roper) who triggers an altercation with Shields when Beaumont punishes Shields’ son Tommy (Trayce Malachi). Lots of gunshots, fighting and running later, Shields finds himself on the run, pursued by bounty hunter Luke McCabe (Ben Robson) while trying to get north via the underground railroad so he can make enough money to free his son.

What follows is a very mixed bag, a scene with an escaped slave living in the woods offers an insight to those who escaped slavery, however, a bank robbery gone wrong provides a wagon chase so silly it feels like someone is trying to make The Fast and The Furious but as a western.

The battle at the end is uninspiring, and the final confrontation crosses the line into completely ridiculous. The plot itself is scraped back to very little, allowing most of the runtime to be allocated to ridiculous action scenes. Every character is under-developed. With most introductions amounting to little more than name-dropping. Great actors such as Bruce Dern and James Cromwell, who play the real men Levi Coffin and James Brown respectively, are horribly underused.

Herein lies the issue, this is not a story that should really be told in this way. It’s not respectful, it’s not historically accurate, it isn’t empowering, it’s just… silly. Looking up what really happened to Shields Green after watching the film cements that. Emperor feels at times like an episode of a sci-fi tv show from the mid-90s, or maybe the Hamlet piss-take from Last Action Hero (1993). All that is missing is the explorers from the future, as the overly bright cinematography detracts any remaining mood from the cheesy script, and each location is introduced with a font straight out of a cowboy computer game. In Gold.

Sometimes, with a talented enough author, revisionist history can work well, using a real man’s name and changing his story feels not so much like Black Lives Matter, as Black Lives Erased. Especially if the names involved are not particularly well known. If a filmmaker wants to make an empowering film about a slave revolt, look up the many true stories, and respect them, follow them, tell their truth. Modern audiences and the descendants of these people deserve that.

Dir: Mark Amin

Scr: Mark Amin, Pat Charles

Cast: Dayo Okeniyi, Bruce Dern, James Cromwell, Kat Graham

Prd: Mark Amin, Reginald Hudlin, Cami Winikoff

Music: Javier Navarette.

DOP: Jeremy Rouse

Country: USA

Year: 2020

Runtime: 99 Minutes

Kaleidoscope Entertainment presents Emperor on Digital from 1st March and DVD from 5th April

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Erika Bean

Blogger at screeningviolets.wordpress.com Occasional guest and host on the FILM & PODCAST. New cohost on Mondo Moviehouse. Likes arguing on the beach, long walks on the internet, intersectional feminism and neurodiversity.

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