"He could have gone to Canada and lived happily ever after but instead Shields Green chose to fight knowing that this could be a suicide mission."
Mark Amin, the writer and Director of Emperor was making a very good point. Its not as if Hollywood hasn't made movies about slavery before. Yet for his new movie, he has decided to tell a story about a man who not only escaped from his enslavers, but would also go on to participate in the Raid on Harpers Ferry where the aim was start a slave revolt against their enslavers and the system of slavery.
Amin continued by saying: "I thought it would be really interesting to make a movie about the slave who fought back. That was when we started to look around for those who did that. We looked at many stories and when we came across Shields Green, suddenly I thought, “Oh my god, this guy has connected all the dots.” He was only 23, he had a five year old son, he ran away and made it to freedom, he met John Brown, he met Frederick Douglass, he took part in Harpers Ferry and Harpers Ferry was taken back by Robert E Lee. These are three of the most prominent figures in American History. Shields Green crossed paths with all of these people."
Yet the story of Shield Green is a largely untold one. In terms of historical evidence, his is a history that is sparse in details. It is an issue that makes the telling of his story somewhat problematic yet completely compelling and necessary. Turning someone who has been but a footnote in American history into the central focal point of a movie was an issue as Amin freely admits:
"Nobody really knows about his journey when he escaped the plantation. We did a lot of research and found nothing. We even looked for descendants of him but we couldn’t find any. We tried to stay as faithful as we could to his character and the major events. His meeting with John Brown and Frederick Douglass. The dialogue for that is accurate from the historical records that we have."
Film makers, when dealing with historical figures, are often accused of taking liberties with the real lives that they aim to portray. In telling the story of Shields Green, Amin focuses on what is already known with enough creative license available to him to form a character that we really should be celebrating as a man of defiance alongside the abolitionist, John Brown.
"He could have gone to Canada and lived happily ever after but instead Shields Green chose to fight knowing that this could be a suicide mission. To me that was so unique and showed what a heroic character he was and yet, we don’t really know that story."
"He had the chance to be free but chose to go back and to fight for freedom for all men. I was moved by that and moved by the idea that no one knows the story."
"When the script arrived I though, why don’t I know about this story, why isn’t this a bigger story. A story about rebellion, about a man in the 1800’s that took agency of his own life. He had the chance to be free but chose to go back and to fight for freedom for all men. I was moved by that and moved by the idea that no one knows the story and I wanted be a part of the people who told this story. We ignorantly think that we know so much about this era yet we find out there are heroes that fell through the cracks. Their stories deserve to be told. They were a domino effect that eventually led to the Civil war that led to the Emancipation Proclamation and the reconstruction era, Jim Crow and then the civil rights movement. Its American History and those stories deserve to be told."
Researching Green for the role, Okeniyi hit the similar stumbling blocks as the writer.
"Shields Green is the first character I’ve played who was a real person. Because he is not well known I could take some creative liberties in the way he walked, the way he talked. There’s little about him so you reverse engineer who you think this man was. I studied traits that people who were enslaved would have. What is the physiological trauma of someone who has been in a situation like that? How much self realiastion do they have? How aware of themselves as a person are they? Is there any kind of vanity at all?"
Some fragments of the life of Shields Green were available in the form of The Narrative of Frederick Douglass. It was the key text studied by Okeniyi: "I started with Frederick Douglass’s autobiography where Shields is mentioned very briefly but it paints such an amazing gesture portrait of him. He was described as man not to shrink away from a challenge."