If it weren't for the fact that Amazon doesn't allow zero stars, I would give this awful movie ZERO.
We watched the movie (I wouldn’t call it a “film”) “Emperor” last night. While I appreciate the stated motivation behind making the movie, elevating the profile of black heroes fighting for their own freedom and justice, when you fictionalize a true story with so many untruths and distortions, you not only fail in that attempt, you do a tremendous disservice to the actual drive to unveil the history and shine a true light on African-American heroism. It’s as if they were trying to turn Shields Green into a 19th century “Black Panther” as in the 2018 blockbuster movie. I strongly discourage everyone from watching this movie. If it weren’t for the fact that my wife and I are “John Brown” people who have studied and written on the story of John Brown, his friends, compatriots, and family for twenty-five years, and are almost required to see it, I would have passed it by just based on the horrific reviews that have already come in. The reviewers were looking at it primarily as a movie, and dealt in issues such as the screenplay, the direction, production, even the bad wigs. They largely didn’t deal with the fact that about 99 and 99 one hundredths percent of it is not only fiction, but an absolutely egregious pack of lies about the characters and events that took place around Shields Green and John Brown in 1859.
It’s easy to see why the moviemakers would choose Shields Green. Out of the 5 black members of John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry company, his story is the one most shrouded in mystery. There is very little actually know about him, so it would be easiest to fictionalize his story. I’ll get to correcting the lies in the movie in a minute or two. I couldn’t possibly get to them all since they are most of the movie, so I’ll try to focus on the biggest ones. Let me begin with the only stuff in the movie that’s actually true, then we’ll move on to the things that are false. Basically the truths fall into 4 short categories. Anything other than these small things can be completely dismissed as fiction, or worse, damned lies.
1. Shields Green was a real person, escaped enslavement from South Carolina, eventually met Frederick Douglass, and fought with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He did leave his son behind in slavery. He DID engage in a conversation with John Brown and Frederick Douglass in a quarry at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1859, but far from how it was depicted in the movie.
2. John Brown, Oliver Brown, Watson Brown, Dangerfield Newby, Levi Coffin, Frederick Douglass, and Robert E. Lee were all real people. While they name J.E.B. Stuart, also a real person, in the ending credits, we are never introduced to him by name or word in the movie. (notice that I did NOT say that anything these characters said or did in the movie bears any resemblance to the truth, although there actually WERE some true quotes, believe it or not.)
3. There was an encounter between John Brown & his men and U.S. Marines in blue uniforms at Harper’s Ferry in which Brown and Co. were defeated. Both Brown’s sons were shot during the melee, but, contrary to the movie, while Oliver did die on site. Watson suffered for hours after his capture and died in custody.
4. The drawing of Shields Green and the Daguerreotype images of John Brown, Oliver Brown, Watson Brown, Levi Coffin and Frederick Douglass shown in the ending credits are real historical images.
Pretty much everything else.
The movie portrays Shields “Emperor” Green as some sort of superhero. He was not. He did not murder the overseer and his cohort after the overseer (fictional character) flogged Green’s son Tommy. Tommy? No one knows what Green’s son’s name was, and he was not that old when Green left him behind to go north. Green was not running with his wife through the woods when she was shot in the back, whereupon he had to leave her and go on. Balderdash. Green was a widower, but his wife probably died either shortly after giving birth to their son, or as a result of some other health crisis without adequate medical attention. Their son could not have been more than five years old when Green fled. The true story is that he escaped from slavery on a ship, one that probably transported a cargo of cotton bales, out of Charleston harbor sailing north along the eastern seaboard. Green stowed away below decks, probably with the help of a sympathetic or friendly seaman. (The movie repeatedly focuses on Greensboro as his escape portal? How did they think that up?) He disembarked in New York City. His escape did not take place in 1859 as stated in the movie, but at least a few years before that.
By saying that Shields Green escaped in 1859, the movie fills in a huge time gap wherein the “Emperor” actually traveled around the country. Green claimed he left New York and went to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a little too close to the Mason-Dixon Line for comfort and security. Sometime most likely in 1856 he went to Rochester, New York wherein he met and visited with Frederick Douglass. But even that town on Lake Ontario was not completely safe for a fugitive, so, apparently encouraged by Douglass, Green crossed over into Canada. He lived in St. Catharines for probably the better part of 2 years, returning to Rochester in probably early 1859. Contrary to the impression left by the film that he met John Brown in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, they actually met earlier that year at Frederick Douglass’s home most likely in early April. It was that summer when Brown, planning the Harper’s Ferry action from his headquarters in nearby rural Maryland, sent an urgent request to Douglass asking him to travel down to Chambersburg for a meeting. He said he wanted to discuss a change in plans, and suggested Douglass should bring Shields Green with him. Douglass and Green traveled by train, and created quite a stir when they disembarked on the platform in Chambersburg, almost exposing the clandestine meeting. In fact, Douglass was approached on the platform by a couple of local abolitionists who recognized him, wondering if he wasn’t there to deliver a lecture. When Douglass said no, they engaged him to do so, which he agreed to do as a way of diverting them from his secret appointment. Douglass and Green met with Brown and his lieutenant, John Kagi, for two days in a quarry on the edge of town. It was apparently a heated debate about the wisdom of the plan. Contrary to the movie, according to Douglass, Green did not join in the conversation until the very end, when Frederick turned to Green and, not assuming what his decision would be, asked Shields what he was going to do. Here, the movie actually got the quote right. Green said, “I believe I’ll go wi’ the ole man.”
Then there is Harper’s Ferry. The action there, as depicted in this ridiculous movie, bears absolutely no resemblance to what happened October 16, 17 and 18, 1859. First of all, there were, in fact, 5 black members of John Brown’s company. Almost as soon as Shields Green joins the company he is introduced to Dangerfield Newby (whose actual true story is far more detailed in history and more poignant than Green’s) but where are the other three? (Osborne Perry Anderson, John Anthony Copeland, and Lewis Sheridan Leary) One finally shows up, unidentified, when Lt. Colonel Lee captures the remaining raiders in what? A catacomb?? He’s standing there frozen in fear with 3 white guys on his right and 1 white guy on his left. Who are these guys?
The set for this version of John Brown’s raid is an elaborate fort. What? A very shallow, cursory look into the actual story will reveal to anyone that John Brown’s “fort” was, in fact, a fire engine house about the size of a large 2-car garage, and several of his men were stationed in other places around the town of Harper’s Ferry. Just go to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and you can see the “fort” and even go inside, even though the building was moved from its original location.
The battle in this movie is ridiculous balderdash. There are lots of clashes, lots of soldiers being killed, Brown’s men firing from brick windows all in a row, and they even have a CANNON! Where did that come from?! Neither John Brown nor Robert E. Lee had or used a cannon. Absurd. Then, when all seems lost, what does our superhero “Emperor” do? The coward jumps on a horse and rides away! (Commonly known as desertion.) His old nemesis, the bounty hunter Luke McCabe (where do they come up with these characters and names?) takes aim and gets off a shot, supposedly wounding him, but he rides away anyway.
Sorry folks, but I’m gonna spoil the ending. Since it’s all a lie, you should know before you see it. Green is pursued by McCabe, of course. He holds up in a church steeple somewhere in the countryside, where McCabe corners him. But our hero has cleverly set up a “bomb” of a full keg of gunpowder, (how did he transport THAT on horseback?) and when he has the opportunity, he blows up the steeple with McCabe in it, but dives out the window in the nick of time, diving into the incredibly deep river below, where he becomes a new hero, something like Aquaman! He gets away and then we have a couple of epilogues. One is where Levi Coffin (the real white-guy hero) brings a bunch of money and buys Green’s son Tommy from the old master, and then Green is magically reunited with his son. The final epilogue is years later when Tommy, all grown up now, is taking the manuscript of his book of the story of his father to a publisher to get it published. The book is entitled… wait for it… EMPEROR!
Okay, folks. The real ending? Not so pretty. Shields Green was captured in the engine house along with Brown and a handful of the others by Lee’s men, in a charge led by J.E.B. Stuart. They were all tried and convicted and on the 16th of December that year, along with one of the other black raiders, John Anthony Copeland, Shields Green was hanged in Charlestown, Virginia. Dead. He did not reunite with his son, who never wrote a book about his father. There WAS a book written by one of the other black raiders, the only book written by anyone in the company. Osborne Perry Anderson’s book is entitled A VOICE FROM HARPER’S FERRY. You can buy it online from Amazon.com!
If you want to know more about Green, please refer to the very excellent book, newly published by New York University Press, written by Louis DeCaro, Jr. who is probably THE pre-eminent biographer of John Brown and historian of the entire story, its roots and its legacy. His book is called THE UNTOLD STORY OF SHIELDS GREEN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A HARPER’S FERRY RAIDER, also available through Amazon.com. Lou also has an excellent blog page wherein he comments on all things related.
Unless you like total re-writes of history, steer clear of EMPEROR. It’s laughably horrible. I feel pity for James Cromwell, an otherwise fine actor that he had the foolishness to throw in with this piece of trash, playing the role of John Brown.
If your rating system is 5 stars, it gets none. If it’s rotten tomatoes, it gets five green splats. If it’s thumbs up, in our house it gets 4 thumbs down!