Review: Will Smith Stars in Emancipation, a Story of Enslavement, War, Faith and Triumph

Set about 100 years apart, there are two films out right now built around real-life photographs of brutalized Black bodies that resulted in public outrage and instigated change in American law (if not always in American minds). The first is the Emmett Till story Till (still in theaters), the painstaking re-creation of the death and aftermath of the 14-year-old Chicago boy whose mother’s insistence that the world see her dead son’s mangled face kickstarted the early stages of the Civil Rights movement. 

And the other is director Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation, a fictionalized account of a real slave, possibly named Peter (Will Smith), whose photo was taken in 1863 during a routine medical examination as he was joining the Union army in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His back was literally covered with lacerations and deep scars from whippings he’d received as a slave. The photos were published, circulated, and were key supporting evidence as to the horror of slavery, which inspired many to support President Lincoln’s recently declared Emancipation Proclamation and put it into action, especially in the South. To be clear, everything else in Emancipation is the product of screenwriter Bill Collage, but very little about it feels “invented,” in the traditional sense of the word, with maybe one or two exceptions in the film’s final act. But the resulting film is part history lesson, part exploitation film, part chase movie, part war picture, and even a faith-based story about a god-fearing man who never lost faith that he would escape his captors and reunite with his family.

I’m not here to rehash what went on at the Oscar ceremony earlier this year; dumber people than me have already done that ad nauseam. But in a cruel twist of fate or irony or whatever, Smith’s performance in this movie would have guaranteed him an Academy Award nomination in any other year—and it still might happen. As the film opens Smith’s Peter (who was brought from Haiti, so the actor has a heavy accent and speaks French occasionally) is working on a plantation with his family, including wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and their children, and he’s leading them in a prayer before the day’s work begins. Soon after, he receives word that he’s being shipped out without his family to a work site where the Confederate army is building new railroad lines to transport munitions. But shortly after he arrives, he realizes that everyone here will be worked hard until they die because the South is losing the war. To make matters worse, he overhears the white leaders mention that Lincoln has freed the slaves, so this makes Peter all the more eager to get out and meet up with the Union army he’s heard has secured a location in Baton Rouge, about five days’ walk away through dangerous swamps.

The extended stay at the camp is the beginning of the brutality. We see slaves drop dead, and they are simply thrown into a mass grave with lime shoveled on them to accelerate the decomposition process. The place is a hellscape, and Peter’s tendency to want to help those in need (often with the word of God as his source of comfort or inspiration) gets him in a great deal of trouble. During a mishap on the site, Peter and three others escape into the swamp, eventually pursued by master slave hunter Jim Fassel (a supremely convincing Ben Foster) and his two henchmen, including one Black man (whom one slave refers to as “the worst kind”). The film doesn’t really let up once Peter is on the run, and the swamp gives us plenty of chances to tense up or jump when there’s the threat of some wild, man-eating or -biting creature in the water. Peter quickly separates from the others, so Emancipation truly becomes a one-man show for an extended portion of its runtime.

I think it’s fair to say that director Fuqua has never made a film quite like this, despite it containing elements that he has used before. But his strange and effective use of black-and-white and color imagery really adds something to the film’s overall aesthetic, with much of the film appearing in black and white, with flashes of color in fire or other, bright objects. Many of the evening scenes appear to be in color, but it’s so dark, you might not realize it at first. Other scenes seem to have had the color nearly bled out of them, but there are clearly traces scattered throughout that register subtly and sometimes add an eerie, other-worldly quality to a moment. I’m sure Fuqua had rules he was using, depending on the moment or time of day, but I had trouble cracking the code. Still, when you have Robert Richardson (a regular collaborator with Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino) as your cinematographer, sometimes you just take the beauty of it in without asking too many questions.

As if the story of an escaped slave weren’t enough, Emancipation has a fourth act that actually includes the moment when the infamous photo was taken (known as “Whipped Peter”). Soon after, Peter joins an all-Black regiment unit of the Union army, and they execute a violent raid on a Rebel position, seemingly with Peter (and his belief in God) leading the charge. It’s the hero moment that seems to be a requirement in every Will Smith movie, and it was the one time I was taken completely out of the film. I know some have said that the sequence makes it look like Smith’s character wins the Civil War, which is nonsense. But it does seem to put it on pause long enough for Peter to return to his old plantation, in search of his family.

Emancipation is brutal, gritty, stunning at times, and often shocking, which may be the point of it all. Fuqua and Smith have made the clear decision not to pull any punches, and they may have added a few in the process. But maybe that’s what it takes to get through some people’s skull these days, in an age where someone running for an elected office might say something ridiculous like owners treated their slaves “well” or some slaves “enjoyed” their lives. The photo of Peter was the proof many needed to know that neither of those things were true in the 1860s, and maybe some people today need an in-your-face reminder like this film.

The film is now in theaters, and begins streaming on Apple TV+ on December 9.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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