The Movie Waffler New Release Review [DVD/VOD] - EMPEROR | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [DVD/VOD] - EMPEROR

emperor review
The story of 19th century slave turned freedom fighter Shields Green.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Mark Amin

Starring: Dayo Okeniyi, James Cromwell, Ben Robson, Kat Graham, Bruce Dern, Mykelti Williamson, James Le Gros, Paul Scheer, MC Gainey

emperor poster

Looking back at cultural events over the last year (and, in an event tangentially linked to what we’re about to discuss, balking at The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities findings that the UK isn’t racist after all, even though, along with everything else, we have an actual Prime Minister who uses phrases like ‘watermelon smiles' and 'piccaninnies' when referring to black people - what a character, eh readers?), one can’t help but think that a reminder of where institutional disparity between white and black in the USA originated, and the antecedents of cultural entitlement and reciprocal mistrust began, may be timely. And also, while we’re at it, if such an aide-memoire were to exist, wouldn’t it be especially potent if it was contextualised within the myth making of genre filmmaking, and perhaps not the perceived worthiness of Oscar bait? It seems that films like 12 Years a Slave, as important as they are, never have the efficacy of populist cinema, which exists more enduringly within the prevalent culture.

emperor review

Enter Mark Amin’s Emperor (with co-writer credit to Pat Charles, and also produced by Reginald Hudlin, who I will always have a soft spot for, not least of all for his dynamic run on Marvel’s Black Panther comic in the mid 2000s), a fast and loose biopic of escaped slave and folk hero Shields Green, which depicts the Jim Crow South Carolina of the 1850s through a kinetic, action lens.

This isn’t a history lesson, and nor should it be: an opening intertitle advises that the film is ‘Based on a True Legend’, and the ensuing narrative shapes what could have happened into a tale which is both archetypal and inspirational. This is what storytelling is after all; this is what cinema does. As a voiceover (via a character who doesn’t even exist ‘in real life’: Green’s book writing son) forcefully intones, "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."

emperor review

And what a story it is, and so excitingly told! We follow Shields Green cross-country as he escapes from the plantation and embarks on a journey which ultimately sees him fight at the abolitionist raid at Harper's Ferry (Green’s presence at the battle is historically accurate, at least). While the film does duly depict the sort of atrocities which occurred on plantations - both Green and his little son are whipped, triggering his escape - Emperor is at heart a gleeful, boys own adventure. At one point we see Green and a pal evade capture by utilising a hollowed out log which they repurpose as camouflage to meander down river. There is also a wagon race involving sharp shooting, explosions and broken axles which is honestly one of the most thrilling scenes you will see all year - a joy.

Intriguingly, the white people in Emperor are either part of a filthy rich establishment greedily clinging to their privilege, or dirt poor rednecks hoping for a few scraps from the table: a binary depiction which, subtly, implies that, as ever, class hierarchy is the real evil which corrupts Western society. There is an exception though, both in terms of white representation and as a bum note within the film’s general tone, by way of Ben Robson’s bounty hunter who is hired to track down Green; a vocation which unwritten action cinema rules state must be portrayed as cool, no matter what. It sort of doesn’t work here, as this shitbag essentially shoots unarmed and destitute escapees. Big man, but also an interestingly repellent characterisation which (perhaps inadvertently) speaks to the sort of romantic, outlaw image which the American right cling to when they do things like raid the Capitol. It feels good when he gets his, and, by extension, Emperor’s utopian stylings have their own instructive positivity, too.

emperor review

Perhaps in real life these stories do not have happy endings (the actual Green was hung a few days after Harper’s Ferry, and, if he did have a son, probably didn’t meet him and accordingly relay his derring-dos), but this celebration of emancipation, and cinema’s essential escapism, provides ambition and aspiration beyond the dominant hegemony.

Emperor is on UK/ROI VOD and Digital now, and DVD from April 5th.

2021 movie reviews