Some of us best equipped to fight this war with a gun.”
The film Emperor is inspired by the legend of Shields “Emperor” Green, a slave who became an outlaw and part of the raid on Harpers Ferry that helped to kickstart the revolt against slavery that ultimately led to the Civil War. When he was a child, Shields’ mother would always tell him that he was a descendant of African kings, and that he himself would one day be Emperor. Whether or not this was true, Shields (Dayo Okeniyi, Shades of Blue) didn’t know and didn’t care—“Slave, Master, King, they’re all the same to me.” But he decided that it was the truth, and his title of “Emperor” soon became well-known far and wide.
Shields has been a slave all his life. He is a smart, intelligent man who taught himself how to read, and has been stashing away money so that one day he can buy freedom for his wife Sarah (Naturi Naughton, Power) and young son Tommy (Trayce Malachi). He is a hard worker and has become a leader, organizing the other slaves as they tend the crops on the plantation to make sure everything runs smoothly. Over the years Shields has kept his head down and stayed out of trouble, believing that this would keep his family safe. However, everything changes when his master, Duvane Henderson (Paul Scheer, Black Monday), gambles away the plantation, and a much less benevolent new owner, Randolph Stevens (M.C. Gainey, Lost), steps in. Stevens’ right hand man, Hank Beaumont (Patrick Roper, Florida Girls), is a vile and racist person. Hank knows that Shields is smarter than he is, and sees this intelligent black slave as an abomination and a threat. And so, to put him in his place, Hank whips Shields’ son Tommy. Shields lets his emotions get the better of him and retaliates, and soon finds himself on the run. Stevens and the other local slaveowners are concerned that Shields’ actions may inspire other slaves to revolt, and so they hire “the best bounty hunter in Texas”, Luke McCabe (Ben Robson, Animal Kingdom), to track Shields down so they can quell any thoughts of rebellion. Shields follows the path of the Underground Railroad, hoping to make his way up North in order to free his family. Along the way he crosses paths with many folks who seem to know him by his “Emperor” nickname—some kindhearted, and others with ulterior motives—and ultimately finds his way to abolitionist John Brown (James Cromwell, Babe), who offers Shields an opportunity to help more than just his own family.
While Emperor certainly isn’t going to win any Oscars, I did find it to be an enjoyable and entertaining movie. The film opens with a narration from a grown-up Tommy, recounting his father’s legendary story. Shields has just joined abolitionist John Brown and his ragtag army as they are planning to attack the armory. The film then jumps back Charleston, South Carolina in 1859, to see the what led Shields to go on the run, and ultimately find himself at that historic moment in history. As Shields begins his journey, he is fueled on pure emotion, but he doesn’t really have time to think about what has happened as men with dogs and guns are hunting him through the forest and river…and things are only going to get more dangerous once a notorious bounty hunter joins the chase. As Shields makes his way up North, he encounters several interesting and odd side characters along the way. Among those he meets are a mute slave hiding in the swamp, slaves Truesdale (Mykelti Williamson, Lethal Weapon) & Delores (Kat Graham, The Vampire Diaries) who are sympathetic to his cause, ambitious young bank robber Rufus Kelly (Keean Johnson, Euphoria), who’s the midst of his second heist, seasoned underground railroad engineer Levi Coffin (Bruce Dern, Mr. Mercedes), and the Frederick Douglass (Harry Lennix, The Blacklist). However, it seems like just as quickly as a new character is introduced, they disappear and Shields is off to meet the next one. Some of these characters were quite enjoyable and entertaining, but gone too quickly. (I definitely would watch a film about Rufus Kelly!) These encounters make up the second act of the film, and feel like short vignettes of Shields’ journey, woven together by the pursuit from Luke the bounty hunter. For the final act, the film rejoins where we initially left off, at Harpers Ferry as Shields learns of John Browns plans, and the raid plays out.
The first act of the film is more of a character drama, following the slave struggle and the lives of Shields and his family. In the second act, it becomes more of an action movie with some tense moments and great action-packed sequences as Shields is on the run and being chased by the bounty hunter. There are also some lighter moments, such as when Shields partners up with the novice bank robber, which feels like a fun Western. This builds to the final act which starts off as more of a drama and discussion of the political landscape of the era, and then amps up the action as the raid takes place. While the bounty hunter was an interesting addition to the story in the second act of the film, it overstays its welcome and feels completely unnecessary once Shields gets to Harpers Ferry. It was like one ridiculous layer too many to the story—it would be like if you were watching a disaster film where an assassin was trying to kill someone in the middle of a tornado. The dialogue of the film was also a bit off—it often felt a little too methodically planned out and over-acted such that it came off too scripted and less natural. The film also takes many historical liberties. However, on this point, I have to hand it to the writers as they found a perfect way to both bring the story full circle and give themselves a viable out to justify all the historical changes. While these may sound like a lot of complaints, I did find the film to be an enjoyable watch overall—just don’t expect some deep discussion of race and slavery, and instead more of a period film with an attractive younger cast.
Universal has only released this film on physical media on DVD, so folks who wish to see it in HD will need to go with the Digital version. I generally only watch HD or 4K programming these days, and while the film is certainly watchable, the picture was noticeably duller and less detailed than what I am typically used to. This was particularly evident in scenes such as when Shields is hiding out in a green swamp with tall green, leafy trees, and every just looks a bit fuzzy. The DVD’s audio presentation, on the other hand, was quite good, providing clear dialogue and an exciting score. The track makes excellent use of the stereo and surround sound to bring the action to life and give the viewer a more immersive experience. This was especially noticeable the first time we see Shields on the the plantation, and the room is filled with the sounds of birds, animals, and people at work. The DVD disc comes packed in standard DVD keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. There is no digital copy or bonus material included.
- 480i / Anamorphic Widescreen 2.39:1
- Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English DVS (Descriptive Video Service)
- Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
There is no bonus material included on this DVD.
Emperor is an entertaining, though historically inaccurate, tale of the legend of outlaw slave Shields “Emperor” Green. There are some great action sequences and Shields crosses paths with some fun side characters. Unfortunately, this is a bare-bones DVD-only release with no bonus material or digital copy included. This isn’t a thought-provoking drama about slavery, but more of a popcorn film. I think it’s worth a look, but I would go the digital route as the HD picture should look much better than the DVD.