In the 1940 picture “Santa Fe Trail” — an ostensibly rousing adventure yarn that’s also a grotesque, risible piece of historical both-sides argumentation — the pre-Civil War abolitionist John Brown was played by Raymond Massey as a wild-eyed fanatic who’s brought to heel by the West Point chums J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Armstrong Custer (the future President Ronald Reagan).
Current perspectives on history cast Brown in a more sympathetic light. In “Emperor” — which announces itself as Civil War history told not by or for the benefit of whites — Brown (James Cromwell) is an important figure alongside its title character, Shields Green (Dayo Okeniyi). Shields’s post-escape journey culminated with his participation in Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.
In narration, Green’s son says he’s telling the story “the only way I know how.” Given the movie’s tired dialogue (“You’re not just a runaway slave anymore, you’re a symbol,” etc.) and largely predictable plot components, though, the tale doesn’t feel much different from one that might be told by an unimaginative liberal of any race.
Which is not to say the movie, written and directed by Mark Amin (an Iranian-American, as it happens), doesn’t have its engaging points. Okeniyi has a strong presence that conveys a genuine moral authority. It stands in stark relief against the movie’s consistently cartoonish portrayals of the white slavers. And Shield’s journey — which, given the gravity of the movie’s subject, flirts weirdly with the picaresque — moves with dispatch. Shields eventually lands in Brown’s militia.
Cromwell portrays Brown as both a cagey strategist and an unreasonable but necessary risk-taker, righteous and common-sensical, save for his eagerness to sacrifice himself and his followers.