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Emancipation Review: Will Smith leads Antoine Fuqua’s driving but shallow slave drama

Lately, I’ve been exploring my deep ambivalence toward slave films—an attitude motivated by suspicions of Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for tragic black characters.

These films visualize, often in a gruesome way, the terror and violence inflicted on black people before, during, and after the height of slavery. Recently there has been a shift towards portrayals of triumph and rebellion, but for the most part these films depict brutality. They are touted as a history lesson and used as a bargaining chip for empathy. The fanfare that surrounds them can feel cheap and callous; To a skeptical observer, it might seem easier not to get involved at all.


The Bottom Line Interesting story, disappointing execution.

Football Highlights

Release date: Friday 2 December (Theatre); Friday, December 9th (Apple TV+)
Pour: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Gilbert Owuor, Mustafa Shakir
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: bill collage

Rated R, 2 hours 15 minutes

And yet telling these stories remains important because we live in a reality where most people’s disregard for Black life is matched only by a commitment to amnesia. This is especially true in the United States, where geographic location determines how history is taught. Where the violence of forced servitude 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 weighs on films like Antoine Fuqua’s shaky drama emancipation (which premieres in theaters on December 2 ahead of its Apple TV+ debut on December 9) with a significant burden of responsibility. So it’s disappointing when they’re little more than Oscar bait.

Written by Bill Collage, emancipation is a driving, action-oriented take on the real-life story of Gordon, an enslaved man named “Whipped Peter.” A photograph of his disturbingly torn back was taken at a Union Army camp in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1863 and was widely circulated in newspapers and magazines. The image drew 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 who aspired to freedom.

Gordon, called Peter in emancipation, is played by Will Smith, an actor whose year was defined by a ridiculous regret tour. He beat Chris Rock during the Oscars in March, a moment that motivated Hollywood to act in unseen ways when it comes to holding other controversial A-listers – past and present – to account.

Marred by a sparse and lackluster script, Smith gives a performance riddled with facial expressions, physical movements and a Haitian accent that strives to shake his rehearsed quality. A constant frown and furrowed eyebrows convey the harshness of Peter’s life, while an erect pose demonstrates unwavering self-control.

The film begins with a domestic scene that establishes Peter’s gentle relationship with his wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), his children, and his faith. Their tender moment is interrupted when the plantation overseers burst into their cabin to pick up Peter: he has been sold to a Confederate Army labor camp, where he is being forced to work on a railroad along with hundreds of other enslaved people. emancipationThe tone of is set by these shrill, abrupt shifts between softness and hardness, intimacy and violence.

In the camp, Peter quickly becomes a symbol of defiance and courage. His ability to look wardens in the eye when they point a gun at his forehead, coupled with his intolerance of unfairness, make him an admirable figure. Then, when he overhears one of the white overseers talking about Lincoln freeing the slaves, it’s easy 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 will require them to traverse the dangerous swamps of Louisiana.

Robert Richardson’s cinematography casts Peter’s world in a sullen gray. It lends a dispirited vibe to what Smith calls a “freedom film.” It also makes it difficult to appreciate Peter as he runs through the coniferous forest, dives into the muddy swamp water, and hides in the thick trunks of towering trees.

Most emancipation, which has a running time of over 2 hours, chronicles Peter’s journey through the swamps while running away from Fassel (Ben Foster), who oversees the entire labor camp. The latter’s success in catching runaways, we later learn, stems from a harsh childhood lesson: when Fassel’s father learned that his son had befriended his caretaker, a young enslaved woman, the man killed her in front of the boy’s eyes Boys. Fassel internalized his father’s disappointment, and what began as shame calcified into what the film portrays as complicated hatred.

Unlike the other white overseers in the camp, Fassel sees the enslaved men – and especially the runaways – as tenacious and intelligent. It’s unclear how emancipation wants viewers to process this information, but it seems we need to realize that Fassel respects Peter on some levels and adds another layer to their dangerous game of cat and mouse.

With his profound knowledge of nature, Peter Fassel is always one step ahead. For the most part, the film keeps viewers rooted in Peter’s perspective, a vantage point that transforms the Louisiana swamp into a frightening landscape of deathtraps and potential revelations. When he’s not avoiding venomous snakes or fighting alligators, Peter devises ways to keep Fassel and his bloodthirsty hounds off his trail. He uses the land around him in cunning ways: he searches for onions to rub his skin, uses honey to anoint his wounds, and listens for birds flying away from distant cannons.

emancipation treats the details of Peter’s journey with respect and great admiration, but his narrative, especially after finding the Union Army camp at Baton Rouge, makes one wonder who Peter was as a person. The drama feels weak as it moves away from the swamps, making the politics of the time almost secondary to the visual spectacle of a harrowing escape. Fuqua’s natural command of the action material is most evident when Peter battles the forces of nature or feuds with the Wardens who are catching up to him. However, the quieter, more dramatic stretches require a steadier and more subtle hand than that training day director offers.

After Peter enlisted in the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, an all-black regiment within the Union Army, emancipation degenerates into a jumble of reports. The film teases some interesting themes about racism within the army, an admission that the North was not a utopia for the formerly enslaved, and questions the limits of freedom after the abolition of slavery. But it does not have time to bother with them.

emancipation, instead dwells on a sensational battle scene set off by a Native Guard attack on Confederate soldiers. The image of the men – some born free, some previously enslaved – running through the field waving the American flag strikes an odd, jarring tone. It’s too neat a conclusion for a nation that still shuns its past.