Emperor

Movie review by
Lynnette Nicholas, Common Sense Media
Emperor Movie Poster Image
Fact-based historical drama has courage, violence.
  • PG-13
  • 2020
  • 99 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Messages of liberty and justice for all are seen in actions of abolitionists, social activists, those who facilitated the Underground Railroad. The power of sacrificing yourself to help others is demonstrated. Themes include courage, compassion, teamwork.

Positive Role Models & Representations

An enslaved man sacrifices so that his son can one day be free. "Emperor" has integrity, is brave, is willing to fight -- even die -- for freedom. John Brown is willing to risk everything to better others' lives. A man who escaped slavery and lives in the swamp showcases courage, spirit of brotherhood in his assistance of another enslaved man. Levi uses his home to help hide an enslaved man who's on a journey to free territory on the Underground Railroad.

Violence

Rifle and gun violence. Characters are shot dead. It's suggested that an enslaved man is hanged, and an enslaved man kills overseers. A bounty hunter catches and kills men for pay, there are several rifle shoot-outs and a graphic battle scene, and a young boy is badly beaten for knowing how to read. A man's body is branded with fire by enslavers.

Sex

A married couple kisses.

Language

Racial epithets, including the "N" word.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adult characters drink and smoke cigars. Three men appear to be drunk in one scene.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Emperor is a historical drama based on the true story of Shields "Emperor" Green (Dayo Okeniyi), who escaped enslavement and fought in the battle of Harper's Ferry, which jump-started the Civil War. The film highlights the Underground Railroad, the connections between free and enslaved Black people, and the White abolitionists and social activists who helped fight slavery. It also depicts the economic benefits of slavery to the South and the social norms of the region at that time. Expect to hear racial epithets, including the "N" word. Violence includes shoot-outs, a person being branded, a graphic battle scene, and many lives lost. A young boy is badly beaten for knowing how to read. This film is too intense for younger viewers, but it has clear themes of courage, teamwork, and compassion. And it doesn't shy away from honest depictions of how awful life on Southern plantations was for enslaved people, as well as the plight of both Black and White people who fought for freedom and change.

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What's the story?

EMPEROR is based on the true story of Shields "Emperor" Green (Dayo Okeniyi), an enslaved man who escapes his enslavers and travels north on the Underground Railroad during the 19th century. Along the way, he has chance encounters with Frederick Douglass (Harry Lennix) and John Brown (James Cromwell). And as a result of his courageous escape from slavery, he's able to assist in the battle at Harper's Ferry, which jump-started the Civil War.

Is it any good?

This intense drama offers a candid depiction of what many enslaved people endured on Southern plantations. Directed by Mark Amin (in his feature debut) and written by Amin and Pat Charles (Black Lightning, Iron Fist), Emperor highlights both the plight of captive people and the contributions of abolitionists like Brown and social activists like Douglass. Some scenes may feel harsh and raw, but that's necessary when it comes to accurately portraying the narratives and testimonies of enslaved people -- such as seeing someone whose tongue has been cut off and someone who's been branded.

Okeniyi is convincing as Emperor, and, as another enslaved person, Delores, Kat Graham is excellent; her commitment to the role is impressive. Other standouts include Mykelti Williamson as Truesdale, Ben Robson as Luke McCabe, Kevin Wayne as the overseer, and Bruce Dern as Levi Coffin. Overall, the cast is solid, and the sets/locations, cinematography, lighting, and costume design are cohesive and well executed. The movie conveys many important messages without being overly melodramatic or redundant. And it has notable attention to detail. Moments like Emperor being bitten (presumably by a snake) while wading in swamp water, the portrayal of two escaped men hiding in murky water beneath a floating log, and a little boy's back full of scars as a result of a beating really help the film make a lasting impression. Its scenes can be graphic, but they're honest, and that adds to the film's impact.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Emperor depicts the lives of enslaved people on plantations, the abolition movement, and the Battle at Harper's Ferry. How accurate do you think it is historically? What role does the U.S. Constitution play in this movie? In what ways did the Constitution uphold slavery?

  • In what ways is Emperor a role model? How does he show courage, humility, and teamwork? How does the fact that he's an enslaved man who's a husband and father affect your opinion of his actions in the movie?

  • What is an abolitionist? In what ways does abolitionist John Brown show compassion and leadership? In what ways do his actions impact others around him?

  • What role did the Battle of Harper's Ferry play in the Civil War?

Movie details

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