It’s tempting to say that now’s not the time for the toothless Civil War drama “Emperor,” however there’s in all probability by no means a very good time for a feel-good atrocity narrative, not even one about Shields Green, a slave who, in actual life, joined John Brown’s abolitionist military and fought within the historic raid on Harper’s Ferry. The downside with “Emperor” just isn’t that it’s an optimistic conflict film, one which applauds some allies, like Brown, whereas damning opportunistic collaborators who tried to show a revenue and/or safe their very own freedom by informing on escaped slaves. “Emperor” would nonetheless be insulting even when it got here out throughout sunnier occasions, from its inert, pandering dialogue scenes—any scene that includes Frederick Douglass is lethal—to its cheesy motion and chase scenes (and there are a pair). “Emperor” is awful in the identical means that many different mediocre slave narratives are: it re-presents a darkish interval in American historical past with out being impressed or insightful sufficient to be price your curiosity or emotional funding.
A non-narrativized ebook or essay about Green (Dayo Okeniyi) might need conveyed one thing significant about his journey from unofficial plantation supervisor to musket-packing abolitionist. Such a ebook or article would presumably fast-forward by means of a number of of this film’s extra perfunctory scenes, which solely serve to remind viewers of how immature (at greatest) and vile (on the whole) white Americans could be. Green places up with all types of cartoonishly self-interested white individuals, together with blithely unconcerned plantation proprietor Randolph Stevens (M.C. Gainey) and his proud, sadistic overseer Hank Beaumont (Patrick Roper). And don’t get me began on Duvane Henderson (Paul Scheer), the derelict former proprietor of Stevens’s plantation, and a minor character who’s as pathetic as Scheer’s horrendous combover wig. I imply, “Emperor” is ready in Charleston, South Carolina throughout 1859, so one shouldn’t count on to come across sympathetic white characters. But there’s additionally not a lot to producer/co-writer/director Mark Amin’s depiction of the various abuses that Shields endured due to Stevens and/or Beaumont. According to “Emperor,” Green was reflexively cursed at, bought out, and bodily tortured to the purpose the place he logically selected to hook up with Brown (James Cromwell), which in flip led to Green’s participation within the raid at Harper’s Ferry. Still, Amin dwells a little bit an excessive amount of on Stevens and Beaumont, like when Roper stares goggle-eyed at Tommy (Trayce Malachi), Green’s younger son, because the boy quietly reads a ebook of English grammar. We presumably have to see Beaumont get mad at Green’s son, as a result of that’s what impressed Green to kill Beaumont, after which run for his life to Greensboro. But Beaumont’s scenes are performed out since they’re concurrently too timid to be provocative, and too flat-footed to be compelling. The identical is true about just about any scene that includes Luke McCabe (Ben Robson), the flamboyant, amoral bounty hunter that Stevens hires to catch Green. McCabe appears to hail from a extra light-hearted action-adventure about slavery. You can see flashes of that different film all through “Emperor,” however they’re sufficient to make you query the priorities of Amin and his collaborators, significantly co-writer Pat Charles and government producer Reginald Hudlin. Like, possibly you don’t want a scene in your slave film the place McCabe, rocking a goofy chevron ‘tache, a pompous wide-brimmed hat, and a few very fastidiously teased curly locks, tries to find the Underground Railroad’s location by interrogating a slave who’s about to be lynched. Or when you do want that scene, possibly you’ll find methods to get by means of it with out having a soon-to-be-dead slave cry out: “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout no railroad, suh.” In any case, this scene, because it performs out on display, is unlucky.
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