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Lately, I’ve been examining my deep ambivalence toward slave movies — an attitude motivated by a suspicion of Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for tragic Black characters.
These films visualize, often gruesomely, the terror and violence inflicted upon Black people before, during and after the height of chattel slavery. There has been a recent shift toward depicting triumphs and rebellions, but for the most part these films portray brutality. They are touted as history lessons and used as bargaining chips for empathy. The fanfare surrounding them can feel cheap and callous; it may seem easier for a skeptical viewer to not engage at all.
And yet telling these stories remains important because we live in a reality where most people’s disregard for Black lives is only outmatched by a commitment to amnesia. This is true especially in the United States, where geographic location determines how history is taught. Where the violence of forced bondage is rewritten to suggest voluntary labor. Where talking about race and the legacy of racism in schools has become illegal in some states.
This kind of climate saddles films like Antoine Fuqua’s tottering drama Emancipation (which premieres December 2 in theaters before its Apple TV+ debut on December 9) with a considerable burden of responsibility. So it’s disappointing when they don’t amount to much more than Oscar bait.
Written by Bill Collage, Emancipation is a propulsive, action-oriented interpretation of the real-life story of Gordon, an enslaved man known as “Whipped Peter.” A photo of his disturbingly lacerated back was taken at a Union army camp in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1863 and circulated widely in newspapers and periodicals. The image galvanized reluctant Northerners to speak out against slavery during the Civil War. But before Gordon became the face of a movement and a member of the Union army, he was a man seeking freedom.
Gordon, named Peter in Emancipation, is played by Will Smith, an actor whose year has been defined by a ridiculous repentance tour. He slapped Chris Rock in March during the Oscars ceremony, a moment that has motivated Hollywood to act in ways unseen when it comes to holding other controversial A-listers — past and present — accountable.
Hampered by a spare and spiritless screenplay, Smith gives a performance marked by facial expressions, physical movement and a Haitian accent that struggles to shake its studied quality. A perpetual frown and scrunched eyebrows communicate the harshness of Peter’s life, while an erect pose displays an unwavering self-possession.
The film opens with a domestic scene, one that establishes Peter’s gentle relationship to his wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), his kids and his faith. Their tender moment is interrupted when the plantation overseers barge into their cabin to take Peter away: He has been sold to a Confederate army labor camp, where he, along with hundreds of other enslaved people, are forced to work on a railway. Emancipation’s tone is defined by these jarring, abrupt shifts between softness and harshness, intimacy and violence.
At the camp, Peter quickly becomes a symbol of defiance and courage. His ability to look overseers in the eyes as they point the barrel of a gun to his forehead coupled with his intolerance for unfairness makes him an admirable figure. It’s easy, then, when he overhears one of the white overseers talking about Lincoln freeing the slaves, for him to convince a group of other enslaved men to escape with him. They plan to go to Baton Rouge, a five-day journey that requires traversing the dangerous Louisiana swamps.
Robert Richardson’s cinematography renders Peter’s world in a morose gray. It adds a dispirited air to, what in Smith’s words, is meant to be a “freedom movie.” It also makes it difficult to appreciate Peter as he runs through the coniferous forest, submerges himself in the muddied marsh water and hides in the thick trunks of towering trees.
Most of Emancipation, which has a runtime of over 2 hours, chronicles Peter’s journey through the swamps as he runs from Fassel (Ben Foster), who oversees the entire labor camp. The latter’s success at catching runaways, we later learn, stems from a harsh childhood lesson: When Fassel’s father understood that his son had befriended his caretaker, a young, enslaved woman, the man killed her in front of the boy’s eyes. Fassel internalized his father’s disappointment, and what began as shame calcified into something the film presents as a complicated hatred.
Fassel, unlike the other white overseers at the camp, sees the enslaved men — and runaways especially — as both persistent and intelligent. It’s unclear how Emancipation wants viewers to process this information, but it seems we are to grasp that Fassel, on some levels, respects Peter, adding another layer to their dangerous game of cat and mouse.
With his deep knowledge of the natural world, Peter is always one step ahead of Fassel. The film, for the most part, keeps viewers rooted in Peter’s perspective, a vantage point that transforms the Louisiana marsh into a frightening landscape of death traps and potential exposures. When he is not avoiding poisonous snakes or fighting alligators, Peter is devising ways to keep Fassel and his bloodthirsty hounds off his scent. He makes ingenious use of the land around him: foraging for onions to rub over his skin, using honey as a salve for his wounds and listening for the birds flying away from cannons in the distance.
Emancipation treats the details of Peter’s journey with respect and great admiration, but its narrative, especially after he finds the Union army camp in Baton Rouge, leaves one wondering about who Peter was as a person. The drama feels flimsy when it strays from the swamps, rendering the politics of the time as almost secondary to the visual spectacle of a harrowing escape. Fuqua’s natural command over action material is most evident when Peter battles the natural elements or tussles with the overseers that do catch up to him. The quieter, more dramatic stretches, however, require a steadier and subtler hand than the Training Day director offers.
After Peter joins the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, an all-Black regiment within the Union army, Emancipation devolves into a confused jumble of messages. The film teases some interesting threads about racism inside the army, an acknowledgement that the North was no utopia for the formerly enslaved, and questions about the limits of freedom after the abolition of slavery. But it doesn’t have time to delve into them.
Emancipation, instead, lingers on a sensational battle scene precipitated by an attack on Confederate soldiers by the Native Guard. The image of the men — some born free, others previously enslaved — running through the field waving the American flag strikes an odd, discordant tone. It’s a conclusion too neat for a nation still avoiding its past.
Production companies: Apple TV+, CAA Media Finance, Escape Artists, McFarland Entertainment
Cast: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Gilbert Owuor, Mustafa Shakir
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Bill Collage
Producers: Will Smith, Jon Mone, Joey McFarland, Todd Black
Executive producers: Chris Brigham, Antoine Fuqua, James Lassiter, Heather Washington, Scott Greenberg, Glen Basner, Cliff Roberts
Director of photography: Robert Richardson
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Costume designer: Francine Jamison-Tanchuck
Editor: Conrad Buff
Composer: Marcelo Zarvos
Rated R, 2 hours 15 minutes
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