Emperor (2020) was directed by Mark Amin in his feature directorial debut, and written by Pat Charles (“Bones,” “Iron Fist,” “Black Lightning”) and Mark Amin (The Prince and Me, Diplomatic Siege). Inspired by the true legend of Shields Green (Dayo Okeniyi) who, in 1859, escaped from a plantation and made a daring journey north to free himself as well as his son (Trayce Malachi) where he met Frederick Douglass (Harry Lennix) and John Brown (James Cromwell). With the opportunity to continue to freedom in Canada, Green instead chose to fight to end slavery in the raid at Harper’s Ferry, all the while a dangerous bounty hunter (Ben Robson) is hot on his trial.
By far the best part of this film was Dayo Okeniyi (Terminator Genisys, “Shades of Blue”) performance. He brought a very real, visceral, nuanced, and even flawed performance to this character. Without saying anything, you can read every single beat of pain, empathy, and emotion on his face, which was especially prevalent even when his dialogue wasn’t always on point. It really does feel like the film has a love and respect for this character and the other real life heroes he was surrounded by. The biggest standout was Dayo Okeniyi however, who felt the most well rounded and developed of all the characters in the film. From the first few scenes he was in, I was on his side, and with him on his journey. Some of the other memorable performances and characters were James Cromwell (“Succession”, Babe, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) as John Brown, Bruce Dern (Nebraska, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) as Levi Coffin, and Kat Graham (“The Vampire Diaries”) as Delores. I think they gave the most nuanced performances outside of Okeniyi.
Unfortunately, I can’t really say the same for the other characters/actors, which has a lot to do with the dialogue. It was so overtly expositional and repetitive to the point where it actually felt a bit distracting. For example, there’s this one moment in which Shields is saved by a mute man while on his way to the north. Shields asks him why he is not talking, and then followed that up with why he got his tongue got cut off, and it was very clear what the mute man was miming, and yet both times Shields repeated his answers out loud, and not in a way that it seemed he was asking the mute runaway if he was correct in understanding him. It just seemed like it was for the benefit of the audience, as if it didn’t trust us to understand what he was miming. This is just one example of some of the rather forced and awkward dialogue. It was especially egregious with the scenes involving supporting characters, as for the most part Okeniyi’s performance was able to undermine what could’ve been seen as awkward and forced as much more organic. Same goes for James Cromwell.
Mark Amin has directed one other short film before Emperor, however, he is mostly known for producing and executive producing feature films such as Leprechaun (1993) and it’s sequels, Star Kid (1997), and Mary Shelly (2017). This film is his first take at directing, and unfortunately I think some of that inexperience shows. That’s not to say the film was poorly directed. There were some good set pieces, particularly one involving a covered wagon and another that took place in a church. The shot composition and cinematography from Jeremy Rouse was also effective. I think Amin’s lack of directorial experience was most apparent in some of the more dialogue heavy scenes. They weren’t shot or staged in a way that was very engaging, which was a shame because the rest of the film, especially in the second act and in the action scenes, he did a great job of keeping the action and tension high.
I think some of the weakness in the direction as well as the writing also came through in the performances. With Harry Lennix (“The Blacklist,” “Billions”) as Frederick Douglas for example, he by all means seems like a good actor, unfortunately, the only dialogue he was given was platitudes and philosophical arguments, and it feels like the only direction he was given was to ‘act noble.’ By all means, Frederick Douglas was a very noble person, a lot of the arguments he made to James Cromwell were interesting and certainly played into the themes of the film, and it’s clear the filmmakers had a lot of respect for this man. However, that’s unfortunately what his brief appearance felt like: a figure rather than a character. That’s unfortunately what a lot of the minor characters felt like: figures rather than three-dimensional characters. The Texan Bounty hunter played by Ben Robson, was just that: a skilled bounty hunter. The slave owners only served as vessels for you to hate them or to move the plot forward and express their fear of a slave uprising. Again, not all characters fall victim to this, and in fact for a few characters and slave owners it makes sense with how simplistic they are written. For some however, it was distracting and felt that the film didn’t trust us to understand these characters.
The pacing of the script was quite good. There were a few scenes that felt unnecessary in the grand scheme of the film, particularly this one in the beginning as well as this one in the end. There was also only one instance in the second act where the film cut back to Shield’s son, and it just felt incredibly pointless and highlighted the film’s greater problem with delivering exposition, as the scene ultimately serves little purpose as we learn the same information a scene later. The film opens with a battle scene which I thought was great and really helped set the tone and the stage for what this film was building towards. However, it then cuts from that to a scene of Shields as a baby which, again, felt pointless as we learn all this stuff about Shields later. The last scene of the film also felt very tacked on, and rather corny. I did like however the motif that the film followed through with as to the reason people call Shields Emperor. The film did a great job of documenting this character’s journey and some of the best parts were seeing him simply meet new people and come across new allies as well as enemies. We really fell for his character and Okeniyi had fantastic chemistry with every single other actor. The film is very fast paced in the last two-thirds and the script does a great job of getting us to care about and understand each new harrowing part of Sheids’ journey.
Verdict: 3 out of 5 Stars
Emperor (2020) benefits from a fantastic lead performance from Dayo Okeniyi, a fantastic and engaging lead character, great supporting performances from James Cromwell, Bruce Dern, and Kat Graham, exciting action sequences, a well paced, high intensity story, and phenomenal chemistry between actors as well as characters. Unfortunately, what really bogs this film down is the rather flimsy and overly expositional dialogue, weaker direction in the more dialogue heavy scenes, and some rather one-dimensional interpretations of characters. The film clearly has a strong love for Shields Green and his story, and I think it is fantastic that we are now seeing more stories like this, and I hope that nowadays we can shed a light on more overlooked African-Americans and People of color whose stories were left behind by history.