A runaway slave get his own Django Unchained movie, and it’s a pretty good one.
While “12 Years a Slave” introduced us to Solomon Northup and “The Birth of a Nation” introduced us to Nat Turner, “Emperor” teaches us about another African slave protagonist. His name was Shields “Emperor” Green, a runaway slave, who was of royal blood, and joined an unsuccessful battle against Harpers Ferry. This fight led up to the Civil War.
You could say the movie is in a similar vein with “Django Unchained,” “The Birth of a Nation,” and “Black Panther.” You’d probably be right considering the fact that you get some entertaining action sequences (chases, shoot-outs, and gunfire), slaves fighting against their masters, and the main real-life figure possessing a courageous spike from his ancestors.
From my point a view, it’s not at the full-throttle narrative of “12 Years a Slave,” because of how the supporting characters aren’t as much status as the main protagonist. But it is worthy of your time, because of how well Dayo Okeniyi portrays Emperor, and how much spirit the film contains.
As the film begins, we find Emperor, his family and fellow slaves under the strict supervision of a new slave master by the name of Randolph Stevens (M.C. Gainey), after their previous owner (Paul Scheer) loses the plantation in a card game. He is an organizer, whose job is to make sure they have enough seeds for the plantation, and he is saying enough money to take his family up north. But when Stevens’ right-hand man (Patrick Roper) whips his little boy (Trayce Malachi), Emperor kills him, and goes on the run.
With his wife (Nature Naughton) murdered, his son left behind, his name on the Most Wanted list, and the bounty hunter Luke McCabe (Ben Robson) on his tail, Emperor must set things right by finding the Underground Railroad and by joining abolitionists John Brown (James Cromwell) and Frederick Douglas (Harry Lennix) in the fight to end slavery.
Dayo Okeniyi has appeared in other movies like “The Hunger Games,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Runner Runner,” and “Terminator: Genisys,” but I never really paid attention to him in those films. Now, that he has a lead role in “Emperor,” I can see he delivers on resurrecting Shields Green by igniting his vulnerabilities with passion and ambition. The movie is targeted as an action flick, close to “Django Unchained,” but it isn’t all about the action. It’s also about his great escape, and his willingness to be reunited with his son.
The supporting cast also includes Keean Johnson (“Alita: Battle Angel”) as a young bank robber, Mykelti Williamson as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and Bruce Dern as a kindly old white man. Cromwell and Lennix both portray their characters with a sense of spirit, even if they don’t get the full studies they deserve. And Robson adds a fresh spark to his character.
The directorial debut of Mark Amin (“Filth,” “The Prince and Me”) tells Shields Green’s story, not as an Oscar-winning epic like “12 Years a Slave” (I mean I acknowledge that not every slave movie has to be exactly like that), but as a small action flick that keeps you involved and has you rooting for the main character from start to finish. Whatever else it might be missing, you’re sure to get your money’s worth.
Available on DVD and Digital