Shields “Emperor” Green is a figure who is often overlooked in American History. The people who do remember learning about the Harper’s Ferry Raid will name John Brown the abolitionist as the hero of that story. However, it was the formerly enslaved man who was concerned for his family who made the raid successful. Emperor is the story of Shields Green from the moment his mother nicknamed him “Emperor” to the day he helped lead the resistance that would ultimately start the Civil War and end slavery.
A Mother’s Hope in a Royal Name
Aunjanue Ellis gives a gripping but brief look at the birth of this historic figure. She whispers to the baby, born enslaved that he was descendant from kings. It’s a process that Black mothers have continued in hopes that their child will be inspired and empowered to be great. This is a small but important scene, especially in light of all the pushback over Beyonce’s Black is King. Ellis’s tender moment amid the most heinous practice in American History is an important one. It gives a great example of the environment that gave rise to the practice of referencing monarchy in talks to empower young Black children. This naming also worked to give mothers hope that their kids would overcome the terror of slavery—a thinly veiled hope, but one to hold onto. Emperor captures this in a fleeting, but powerful scene.
Punished by the Incompetence of Another
Emperor jumps to Emperor Shields Green, played Dayo Okeniyi, as a grown man. He is running the plantation that he is born on, taking up the slack where the plantation’s incompetent foreman and negligent owner. The owner loses the entire plantation in a game of poker. Shields and the rest of the enslaved staff were a part of the plantation and thus they became the property of a new owner. This new guy and his foremen are clueless about running the place, but they also were too racist to take the aide of a Black man. A mistake in the seed order because the white foreman couldn’t count, gets Shields a beating. This even though the Black man tried to gently correct the error, quickly found that they resented Black excellence.
Then, the foreman catches Shields’s son with a book. The young boy is beaten badly and although his mother, played by Naturi Naughton, tries to stop him, Shields angrily confronts the foreman. Several deaths accumulate quickly as Shields tries and fails to get his family away from the plantation. He leaves broken, alone, and desperate to reach freedom.
Twice as Hard, Half as Much
Emperor offers another look at the origins of a prominent Black cultural norm. Black parents have been telling their children since the days of the enslaved that they must work twice as hard to receive half as much as their white peers. This means that being smart is not enough. You must be able to also outsmart the white person who now knows that his brain is much slower than the Black person who is allegedly inferior. The foreman in this film obviously could not count. Shields gives him all the numbers needed for a farmer to quickly tally their needs. Then, Shields sees the white man’s hands trying to tick off the numbers.
At that moment, he had a choice—inform the man of his error or stay quiet. The enslaved field hands were already behind and had probably gotten punished for it despite being unable to acquire the seed on their own. Pointing out the error would get them the seed but would also rub the foreman’s nose in the fact that he was dumber than a slave. Shields took the chance of pointing out the error and never anticipated that they would still fall short on seed. He was beaten for the error, the lost time, and for making a white man look bad.
Even today, Black people all over America can tell you about stories of a white colleague at work who “failed upward” on the Black person’s expense or how they had to do so much additional work to get the recognition. Black men and women in academia recently spoke on this in the #BlackintheIvies hashtag on Twitter. This racism still exists today, despite the gaslighting of administrations and superiors did to ensure that the practice perpetuates itself.
Douglas vs. Shields is a Message We Need Today
Other important origin notes were dropped throughout the film that will resonate with audiences, but the primary takeaway will be the relevance of the film. The most prominent will be the conversation between Frederick Douglas (played by Harry Lennix) and Shields when they first meet. The two men know of one another for obviously different reasons, and yet, they still recognize that both are fighting for the same cause. Douglas is doing so with other abolitionists in the political circles and Shields is seen as using violence to further their cause. Douglas offers Shields an opportunity to escape to Canada, start a new life, and fight with the abolitionists from there. However, Shields is determined to free what is left of his family. He also cannot stand by and let a white man, John Brown (James Cromwell), fight a battle while he flees.
This part is significant. In my interview with Dayo Okeniyi, we did discuss the relevance of that moment. It seems that Okeniyi created the ambiance of that moment by adding a quote to that particular scene. According to the actor, Mark Amin (writer and director of the film), pulled much of this scene from the narratives that Frederick Douglas left behind. Douglas and Shields only had a few interactions that even fewer people recorded interactions with the hero—so they only knew what Douglas was thinking and feeling.
“I didn’t want it to feel like that on screen. That, you know, Frederick was basically trying to get him to run away. In reality, when you read Frederick’s accounts of that day, [the tone] was, ‘you don’t have to give your life away. There are other ways of fighting the war.’”
“But then when I think of who Shields was, he wasn’t a learned man. He wasn’t self-taught. Like Frederick Douglass was. So for him, he had to fight the way he knew how. I think he felt that he would have been best service at Harpers Ferry than he would have been, you know, in Congress or something like that. I feel like he felt, or rather my interpretation is that he, would have felt like a weight on Frederick Douglass in a weird way. So, he fought the way he knew how. I’m very proud of that.”
Come Through for This History Lesson
Emperor is not a dull history lecture, but rather an action-packed film that recognizes the value of Black America’s traumatic past. It uses that past to embolden us today with the knowledge that we came together then and struggled hard to fight off tyranny in the form of slavery. We can do the same today in the face of police brutality and other blatant acts of white supremacy. Emperor is right on time too. It’s out on all major streaming services now, just in time to activate audiences before the Presidential election.
Rating 4.5 of 5