Written, directed and produced by Mark Amin, Emperor is a straight-forward adventure film, peppered with thrilling action-packed sequences. Advertised as a film from the producers of Django Unchained (Reginald Hudlin), Emperor lacks the comic-book violence and bloodshed that Tarantino is famous for, and instead vies for a more family friendly sheen, the fighting scenes devoid of any real gore or grit. This oddly opposes with the film’s content: a reimagining of the true story of an escaped slave in the pre-Civil War American South, in which Shields ‘Emperor’ Green (Dayo Okeniyi) joins abolitionist John Brown (James Cromwell) in a perilous raid on Harper’s Ferry. However, as a light, accessible interpretation of this tale and the serious issues it encapsulates, Emperor delivers.
Throughout the film, Amin deliberately puts an overly dramatized, unrealistic spin on the true story, a voiceover at the beginning stating ‘this is my father’s story, told the only way I know how’; suggesting Green’s son is remembering his father the way he wants to, which is a sweet sentiment. Although, as the son’s voiceover never comes back throughout the film, this aspect is somewhat lost, and we forget the son’s involvement as a narrator until the very end.With its lack of grit during scenes covering horrific issues, including the inhumane treatment and punishment of slaves, Emperor definitely has a fantasy feel to it, the realities of slavery covered with the Hollywood shine of adventure. The screenplay passes over Green’s trauma and loss following his escape, and the character’s psychology is never fully shown as being particularly affected or bruised. Some may find this an odd juxtaposition and even disrespectful to skim over these complex issues surrounding slavery. However, it does make the film an accessible watch for a wider audience, which is no bad thing.
Unfortunately, the screenplay does fall short at many points, not helped by some weak and melodramatic acting from the cast. However, Okeniyi gives a strong, consistent performance, doing his best with the material given to him. Emperor doesn’t have many layers to it, and only one thought-provoking conversation stands out, as John Brown and the captain who is about to attack the revolutionaries discuss the abolition of slavery, human rights and the Declaration of Independence. However, even this felt shoe-horned in, unrealistic and too on-the-nose. Indeed, the battle itself at Harper’s Ferry is over much too quickly, and begins in a rush, not leaving much time for any deep character development of John Brown or the other revolutionaries.
Nevertheless, by the end of the film, Emperor manages to uplift and finish on a positive note; lending an optimistic – if unrealistic – interpretation of an unsung hero from American civil rights history.
Kaleidoscope Entertainment presents Emperor out now on Digital and DVD from 5 April