‘Emancipation’ Review: Will Smith Leads Antoine Fuqua’s Propulsive but Shallow Slave Drama

‘Emancipation’ Review: Will Smith Leads Antoine Fuqua’s Propulsive but Shallow Slave Drama

Lately, I have been thinking about my deep ambivalence towards slave movies. This is a reaction to my suspicions of Hollywood’s insatiable appetite to portray tragic Black characters.

These films depict, often horribly, the violence and terror inflicted on Black people during, and after, the height of chattel slaveship. Although there has been a recent shift to depict triumphs and rebellions in these films, the majority of them portray brutality. They are used as bargaining chips to promote empathy and history lessons. They can seem pathetic and trite, so it might be easier for skeptical viewers to avoid them.


The Bottom Line

It was a fascinating story with a disappointing execution.

Release date: Friday, Dec. 2 (theaters); Friday, Dec. 9 (Apple TV )
Cast: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Gilbert Owuor, Mustafa Shakir
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Bill Collage

Rated R
2 hours 15 minutes

These stories are still important, even though most people disregard Black lives. This is due to a commitment towards amnesia. This is especially true in the United States where geography determines how history will be taught. Where the violence of forced bondage is rewritten to suggest voluntary labor. In some states, it is illegal to discuss race and the legacy racism in schools.

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. It’s disappointing that they aren’t 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 inspired reluctant Northerners to protest slavery during the Civil War. Before Gordon became the face and member of the Union army, however, he was still a man looking for 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.

Smith’s performance is hampered by a lackluster screenplay. His performance is marked by facial expressions, physical movement, and a Haitian accent that can’t be shaken. An unflinching pose and a perpetual frown communicate the harshness of Peter’s life.

The film opens with a domestic scene that reveals Peter’s loving relationship to his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Biangwa), their children, and his faith. The plantation overseers arrive at their cabin to take Peter. He is sold to a Confederate army labor camp where he will be forced to work on a railroad. Emancipation‘s tone is defined by these jarring, abrupt shifts between softness and harshness, intimacy and violence.

Peter quickly becomes a symbol for courage and defiance at the camp. He is admired for his ability to look overlords in the eyes while they point a gun at his forehead and his intolerance of unfairness. When he hears one of the white supervisors talking about Lincoln’s liberation of slaves, it is easy for him to convince other enslaved men that he should escape with them. They plan to travel to Baton Rouge, which is a five-day journey that involves crossing the dangerous Louisiana swamps.

Robert Richardson’s cinematography renders Peter’s world a dull gray. It gives Peter’s world a disorienting air.

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. We later learn that the latter’s success in catching runaways stems from a harsh childhood lesson. Fassel’s father was horrified to learn that his son had been friends with his caretaker, a young, slave woman. The man then killed her right in front of his eyes. Fassel internalized the father’s disappointment and what started as shame became a complex hatred, as the film shows.

Fassel sees the enslaved, and especially the runaways, as persistent and intelligent, which is a departure from the other white camp overseers. 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.

Peter is always one step ahead Fassel thanks to his deep understanding of the natural world. The film keeps viewers rooted in Peter’s perspective. This perspective transforms Louisiana marsh into a terrifying landscape of death traps, potential exposures, and transforms it into a frightening landscape. Peter is constantly trying to keep Fassel’s bloodthirsty dogs and poisonous snakes away from his scent. He makes clever use of the land around his house, foraging for onions to rub on his skin, using honey to treat his wounds, and listening out for birds flying by the cannons far away.

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 weak when it moves from the swamps. This makes the politics of the time almost secondary to the spectacle of a terrifying escape. Fuqua’s command of action material is evident when Peter fights the natural elements and tussles against the overseers. 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 explores some interesting themes about racism in the army, acknowledgment that the North is not a utopia for those who were formerly enslaved, as well as questions about the limits to freedom after the abolishment of slavery. It doesn’t have the time to explore them.

Emancipation, instead, lingers on a sensational battle scene precipitated by an attack on Confederate soldiers by the Native Guard. The discordant tone of the image of the men, some born free and others previously enslaved, running through the field waving American flag strikes an odd, discordant tone. It’s too neat for a nation that is still trying to avoid its past.

Full credits

Distributor: Apple TV
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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