Emancipation is based on the true story of Whipped Peter, a Louisiana slave who escaped to his freedom and enlisted in the Union Army.
In a perfect world, we would be having a conversation about Will Smith’s performance and Emancipation’s recreation of the 1860s. Whether we like it or not, the slap will forever be apart of the conversation. I cannot deny the fact that Will Smith delivers another Oscar-worthy performance. Do we need another film about slavery? It’s a good question to be asking. I suppose you can make the same argument when it comes to movies about the Holocaust. As much as one would like to move forward through history, there’s this idea that if we don’t remember our history, we’re doomed to repeat it. Racism is terrible right now and the film feels like an essential reminder. Whether audiences will watch is a different question.
Peter (Will Smith) escapes from slavery in Louisiana and fights for his life in an attempt to escape the hunters on his tail. It’s never easy but the love for his family and quest for freedom are what keep him alive. The swamp is not an easy place but he makes the best of it, including a battle with a massive reptile. Eventually, he makes it to Baton Rouge where he enlists in the Union Army and served in the Louisiana Native Guard. If not for that, this film would not happen. A pair of photographers, William McPherson and J. Oliver in March 1863, took a photo of his back in hopes of getting the horrors of slavery out there in the world. These photos were in Harper’s Weekly and were not a pretty sight by any means. And yet, “The Scourged Back” would help grow the opposition to slavery.
If you’ve never watched a film about slavery before, this film shows the toll that it takes. Families are separated as they get sold or sent to labor camps. Peter is sent to build a railroad and hears about the Emancipation Proclamation shortly after it was made. It’s then and there when he decides to make a run for it. Visions of his wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), and children help keep him alive. Other slaves join him in the escape for freedom. While the goal is Lincoln’s Army in Baton Rouge, not everybody makes it. Through it all, the film is never an easy watch as the images on screen are brutal. Smith and the cast put in the work to make audiences feel every moment that they’re watching on screen. For better or worse, audiences have never seen Will Smith like this before.
After turning in a performance as a Jewish boxer who fought in the camps to survive the Holocaust, Ben Foster puts racism on full display as bounty hunter Jim Fassel. Foster plays the character as originating in the Midwest rather than Louisiana. We know from history that not all Northerners were abolitionists so his decision could be a reasonable choice in how he approached the role. It’s also a reminder that racism today is not just limited to the South. It’s everywhere, unfortunately.
In terms of a visual perspective, the color palette is one of the more interesting choices I’ve seen this year. It is not fully black-and-white as there are some scenes were there’s light color on the screen. The film exists somewhere in between the two but is mostly on the B/W in its desaturated appearance. Director Antoine Fuqua and cinematographer Robert Richardson really immerse audiences in Peter’s experience. The decisions made for this film are what help to set it apart from other similar films, if only to an extent.
According to the film’s production notes, Will Smith never wanted to make a film about slavery. Smith expands on this in his comments:
“I’ve avoided those roles my whole career. But the design and structure of Emancipation is that of a modern action thriller, which is not what anyone thinks of when you think of films set in this period. The textures and flavors are unlike anything you’ve seen before and that gives a whole new perspective. Antoine and I both wanted to create a movie about a man empowered by a mindset of freedom, faith, love, and believing you can be invincible.”
He’s not wrong in that the film does feel like an action thriller because there are so many intense moments from start to finish. While there’s a lot of brutality on screen, Fuqua and screenwriter William N. Collage do their best to give the film a happy ending. Or at least what went for happy during the Civil War. They also have to do their best to fill in the blanks, too. What we know of Peter’s life is only what was reported in magazines and newspapers at the time. Knowing what we know about slavery and escapes, they give the film a sense of authenticity even if Peter’s story on screen might not be 100% accurate.
There are people in this country–mostly those who are conservative–that do not want students learning about the horrors of slavery. To that, I say let them watch Emancipation and see it for themselves, The fact that we still have Jim Crow laws around in 2022 is outright horrifying–if you don’t believe me, watch All In: The Fight for Democracy. You know racism is alive and well today when former South Carolina governor/UN ambassador Nikki Haley calls for Senator Raphael Warnock to be deported. The Georgian senator is an American! If this does not disgust you, I do not know what else to say.
Slavery is America’s worst sin and Emancipation, while still brutal, is essential viewing.
DIRECTOR: Antoine Fuqua
SCREENWRITER: William N. Collage
CAST: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Gilbert Owuor, Mustafa Shakir, Steven Ogg, Grant Harvey, Ronnie Gene Bivens, Jayson Warner Smith, Jabbar Lewis, Michael Luwoye, Aaron Moten, Imani Pullum
Apple will release Emancipation in theaters on December 1, 2022 and streaming December 9 on Apple TV+. Grade: 4/5
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