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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Thursday, January 03, 2019

Shields Green: The Movie That Made It, and the Movie That Didn't

This past summer, I made note of news of a new movie under production about Shields Green the Harper's Ferry raider (see "Out of the Blue: 'Emperor'. . .July 13, 2018).  To my knowledge, "Emperor" is in post-production, but will not be  released until October 2019, the 160th anniversary of the Harper's Ferry raid.

Last summer, the website, If Only, a "marketplace for incredible experiences," auctioned an opportunity for people to get "an early sneak peak of the highly-anticipated film." Apparently, this "sneak peak" took place in July 2018, which included a set visit and an opportunity to meet the CEO of Sobini films, Mark Amin, along with producer Reginald Hudlin.  The beneficiary of the auction was the ACLU of Southern California.
The description provided by If Only notes that the screenplay for "Emperor" was written by Amin, along with Pat Charles, a noted screenplay writer.  The site also provides a partial synopsis of the screenplay:
Set Scene: Dayo Okeniyi (center, Shields Green) flanked
by Kat Graham (left, Delores) and
Mykelti Williamson (right, Truesdale)
After his new owners whip his young son, Shields Green kills the perpetrators and goes on the run. Shields must outwit and out-fight veteran slave catchers and the world-class bounty hunter Catch ‘Em Luke as he flees north to freedom. With Catch ‘Em Luke in hot pursuit Shields joins John Brown’s militia to raid Harper’s Ferry. Enemy combatants who would have whipped him as a slave now take cover from his bullets. Emperor is a two-hander historical action thriller about one man’s fight to win the rights all men deserve.
Of course, most of the description is the writers' fiction.  There is no record that Green's young son was whipped or that Green killed the perpetrators.  Green fled the South as a stowaway on a New York-bound sailing ship and his time in the North before meeting Brown was a matter of years.  Typically, screenplay writers do not bind themselves to the historical record, given their goal is to intensify the drama.  Fortunately for Amin and Charles, however, they have a significant amount of liberty, given the scarcity of information on Shields Green's former life in the South.  It is not clear how faithfully the writers have stayed to the record of Green's role at Harper's Ferry.  Of course, even historians are amazingly diverse in how the raid is recounted at times, so one should not be surprised by innovations in a Hollywood screenplay.

The full cast of "Emperor" is available on IMDb.


Source: New York Daily News, July 1996 (p. 14)
I know little about the film industry, but from what I have gathered, there is no lack of screenplays and no lack of actors, but what ultimately determines if a movie is made is purely a matter of business.  Many a movie has never been brought to production because of the business essentials about which most movie-goers have no clue.  Just in terms of John Brown, there are both good and bad scripts out there, but only a small number (if any!) will ever be purchased, and of those that are purchased by a hopeful director, there is no guarantee they will ever be produced.

Denzel as Green in '96?
I'm Afraid Not

I suspect, although it is only a bias on my part, that the better Shields Green movie is the one that never made it to production.  It is hard to write about that which never came about, but I recently stumbled upon an old newspaper article from 1996, which I post above.

Imagine, a movie about Shields Green starring Denzel Washington and Harrison Ford?  Well, all we can do is imagine because it never happened and never will.  The film, "Shields Green and the Gospel of John Brown" probably would have been a superb film, but not just because of the actors that DreamWorks wanted to cast.  The screenplay for this project was written by Kevin Wilmott, a brilliant and historically diligent interpreter of US history.  When I reached out to Mr. Wilmott, he told me that the screenplay was purchased by the successful filmmaker Chris Columbus of "Home Alone" fame (according to one internet source, for $500K!).  Apparently, Columbus was working with Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Production Company. Precisely why the film never went into production is not readily known, but evidently it fell along the roadside like many other hopeful seeds cast by visionary writers in Hollywood. 

As John Brown would put it, "So we go."

1 comment:

Jean Libby said...

Thank you for keeping up to date on this film about Shields Green. Indeed, a sigh for dropping the 1996 version with Harrison Ford and Denzel Washington.

Looking forward to the 160th! Jean Libby