‘Emperor’: The Heroic Tale of Shields Green

Pictured, from left: Robert Forte Shannon III as Dangerfield Newby; James Cromwell as John Brown; Dayo Okeniyi as Shields Green; director Mark Amin; Harry Lennix as Frederick Douglass; and producer Reggie Hudlin on set of “Emperor”

“Emperor” tells the story of Shields Green, rumored to be a descendant of African royalty, who was born into slavery in South Carolina. He escaped to the North as an adult, then risked his life in the raid on Harpers Ferry armory in Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1859. Most historians consider the raid to be the main precipitating incident that started the American Civil War.

The release of this film illustrates just how difficult navigating the film industry has become since the start of the pandemic. Producer and Malibu resident Cami Winikoff, president and co-founder of Sobini Films, explained that the movie was“Supposed to be in 700 theaters last March—a week before all the theaters closed due to COVID-19. Horrible timing!” It became available online last August, but with far less fanfare.

“Emperor” has now been nominated for two NAACP Image Awards: outstanding independent motion picture and outstanding breakthrough performance in a motion picture. Awards will be announced March 27.

Because the film combines history with action, Variety described “Emperor” as “‘Black Panther’ meets ‘The Birth of a Nation.’”

It stars Nigerian-born actor Dayo Okeniyi in his first lead role, in a stand-out performance recognized not only by the NAACP, but also the New York Times and Variety, which called him a “striking discovery” who “comes across proud and upstanding, his spirit resilient despite years of slavery, which puts him in the company of such silver-screen heroes as Spartacus and Ben-Hur.”

“He’s an amazing actor—a rock star that carries the movie,” Winikoff concurred. “We went on a search for our lead, and the minute we saw him read, we just knew he was the one—he was so passionate about the role.”

Mark Amin, part-time Malibu resident and co-founder/CEO of Sobini Films, has been in the film business since the ‘80s, usually serving as executive producer, with more than 80 film credits including “Monster’s Ball” and “Eve’s Bayou.” He originally co-founded Trimark Holdings (including Trimark Pictures) and later merged with Lionsgate Entertainment. “Emperor” marks his debut as both director and writer of a full-length feature.

“A lot of my movies were my own ideas that I developed anyway, but then when the director takes over, the end result is never quite what you envisioned,” Amin explained. “I wanted to finally carry my vision all the way through a film.”

An Iranian American, Amin is fascinated by American history, especially when it comes to slavery and the Civil War.

“I had worked on African American themed movies before and I’ve seen every film on slavery and the Civil War,” he noted. “It’s so unique to America—nowhere else in the world had we seen slavery on such a massive scale since the Egyptians built the pyramids. I’ve studied it, and John Brown was a true hero to me by deciding to fight against it.”

Amin decided to make his own movie to tell the story of enslaved people, focusing on the stories of those who risked everything to attempt escape. 

“Slave movies all dealt with misery and suffering, and not anyone planning to run away,” the director said. “Well, according to my studies, over 100,000 slaves did run away successfully. So why haven’t people made movies about slaves fighting back and resisting?”

In doing research, Amin looked for a real-life enslaved man who fought back; he found that person in Shields Green. 

“He’s known, but not well known. He helped fight for freedom for all slaves, not just himself. Frederick Douglass wrote about him in his memoirs,” Amin said. The movie became based on Green’s life, but because so little was known about his actual escape from a plantation and how he made his way north, creative license was taken in writing that part of the script.

“The whole approach was not to make a docudrama,” Amin continued. “For example, I love the movie ‘Gladiator,’ and they stick to major historical events, but also take creative liberties. In ‘Emperor,’ all the main characters are true historical characters including some of the dialogue and I stayed true to the main events, like the battle at Harpers Ferry.”

The creative license taken by Amir includes action sequences on Green’s journey to the North—stealing horses and guns along the way, pursuits on horseback, hideouts, jumping off a cliff into a river, bounty hunters, a fight in a church bell tower, a bank robbery and explosions.

Amin found his first-time role as director challenging, both physically, in terms of not getting enough sleep, and in interacting directly with actors, something he had never done before.  

“It was total insanity,” he laughed.

“Emperor,” which also stars Oscar-nominated veteran actors Bruce Dern and James Cromwell, is currently available for viewing through the Malibu Film Society, STARZ and most pay per view platforms.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the correct date of the NAACP Image Awards.