This is only speculation, but the cast and crew of Emancipation, Antoine Fuqua’s Louisiana bayou chase movie disguised as a Civil War slave drama, probably slogged through the mud and muck under the assumption they were making a prestige picture on the order of 2013’s Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave. But watching Will Smith, as a real-life escaped slave named Gordon (rechristened here as Peter), wrestle an alligator and stab a slave catcher with a cross necklace, we realize the film is actually Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (a film that Smith famously turned down) had Tarantino played it with humorless historical reverence. Or maybe Smith is trying to one-up Leonardo DiCaprio’s physical and spiritual debasement in The Revenant. Either way, this leaden beast of self-importance traffics in the kind of ultra-masculine action movie clichés that Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) should have set aside for something subtler. So a drama that aches to connect with the George Floyd era is more like amped-up misery porn, a Will Smith vanity project that pales next to more accomplished films about Black suffering that better remind us of our nation’s ongoing shame.
Not much is known about the historical figure Smith is playing, so screenwriter Bill Collage (the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen comedy New York Minute and the video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed) punts the idea of Peter being a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood character and instead crafts an action-packed story whose narrow focus reads as a lack of imagination rather than a narrative necessity. What we do know is that two months after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the real Gordon escaped a Louisiana labor camp and went on the run through the unforgiving bayou for 10 punishing days before being rescued in Baton Rouge and joining the Union Army. At the army camp, a pair of photographers took a photo of Gordon’s horrendously scarred back, its disturbing array of crisscrossing welts a testament to years of merciless whippings. The image, which came to be known as Whipped Peter or The Scourged Back, became visual proof of the injustice of slavery and it gave a crucial boost to the abolitionist movement.
In Emancipation, what happens before and after the taking of this influential photo (first published in Harper’s Weekly in July of 1863) is justifiably invented but unjustifiably fraudulent, a pedestal upon which Smith can foreground his virtuousness and Fuqua can flex his muscular style. Smith, his charm deeply buried and his lower jaw thrust defiantly forward, gives a grim, committed performance that elicits our sympathy since he’s mostly asked to convey suffering and perseverance as he fights off snakes, bees, dogs, alligators, and the men who relentlessly pursue him. He’s also firmly in A-lister territory, which adds an unwelcome air of award-me ostentation to the whole affair. Only Peter has the courage to stand up for the other slaves, during combat he’s unimpeachably courageous, and his comforting whispers of “go to momma” are enough to send a dying soldier to his reward. The latter moment, which comes during a thrilling battle towards the film’s end, is in line with the Christian faith that keeps the fire of Peter’s resolve raging. It’s mostly lip service, however: had Peter taken even a moment to question a God who would allow slavery to happen and not merely and once-too-often noted his devotion to the Lord, Emancipation could have kicked into a higher spiritual gear.
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Yet the priority is to put Peter through a gauntlet of indignities which begins when he’s torn away from his wife, Dodienne (a gently powerful Charmaine Bingwa), and children and taken to a Confederate labor camp where he helps lay railroad tracks. When Peter overhears that Lincoln has freed the slaves, he makes his escape with three other indentured men. Their plan is to travel through the Louisiana swamps to Baton Rouge and meet up with the Union Army. When Emancipation shifts into chase mode, with Peter and the others followed by a posse led by a stock villain named Fassel (Ben Foster, doing his stoically evil thing), Fuqua is more at home. But that’s hardly a compliment because the more arduous Peter’s slog through the bayou and the more suspenseful his near-miss encounters, the more the film plays like a slick genre exercise. In this gravest of contexts, Fuqua’s natural proclivity for blunt force violence reduces some of his depictions of slave life to being too visually performative.
Given that he’s conceived as near-messianic, Peter survives the bayou and finds his way to Baton Rouge where he joins the all-Black 1st Louisiana Native Guard. The ensuing battle, where Peter is led by a Black captain (Mustafa Shakir), serves as a stirring update to 1989’s fact-based Glory where a white colonel (Matthew Broderick) led an all-Black Civil War infantry regiment to their honorable deaths. Here, Peter marches in uniform alongside only Black Union fighters and then almost singlehandedly wins the battle, another nod to reductive hero cinema that masks the satisfaction of Peter taking up government-sanctioned arms against those who’ve tormented him. This blood-soaked final battle is the capstone to cinematographer Robert Richardson’s top-notch contribution. He moves the camera in wide, swooping motions to capture the enormity of production designer Naomi Shohan’s bleakly authentic Civil War battlefields. These drone and crane shots are risky because they break the intimacy of hewing so closely to Peter but they’re too hauntingly beautiful not to work. The film’s palette is mostly black and white with only occasional tufts of color peeking through. In one of the film’s most disturbing moments, a young white girl dressed quite visibly in red yells “runner” when she sees Peter trespassing on her family’s plantation.
From 1977’s Roots to 12 Years A Slave, the best works in this still-vital and necessary genre have a powerful simplicity, as a lone slave struggles to free himself from an unimaginably vast and cruel system designed to ensure his eternal bondage. He’s not a symbol. He represents only himself. Emancipation is Smith as a superhero who can “survive things most men can’t” and an icon “who taught us to hold on, hold on to each other!” Ultimately then, Emancipation is not the story of Peter, it’s the story of Will Smith playing Peter. Gordon’s actual journey feels in the service of a Hollywood star dreaming of an Oscar, less than a year after his supremely ill-advised display of racist-emboldening Black-on-Black violence at the 2022 Academy Awards. It’s a testament to Smith’s abilities that his performance, as uncelebrated by Oscar as it’s destined to be, will make you forget The Slap. Unfortunately, Fuqua’s unshakable dependence on chase film tropes will make you forget the movie.