Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
Starring Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Steven Ogg, Gilbert Owuor, Mustafa Shakir, Grant Harvey, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Jayson Warner Smith, Jabbar Lewis, Michael Luwoye, Aaron Moten, Imani Pullum, Paul Ben-Victor, Jesse C. Boyd, David Denman, Jeremiah Friedlander, Jordyn McIntosh, Landon Chase Dubois, Austin Alexander, and Britton Webb.
A runaway slave forges through the swamps of Louisiana on a tortuous journey to escape plantation owners that nearly killed him.
Initially positioning itself as a richly authentic period piece brutally exploring the harrowing horrors of slavery – The North is free, the South is not – Emancipation shifts from effective but familiar Black trauma several times over to something else, and something especially surprising in the third act to anyone coming in without prior knowledge of this story.
That’s one way of saying Emancipation is a runaway slave feature by way of the style and sensibilities of director Antoine Fuqua (with a script from Bill Collage); unflinchingly realistic torture, a dash of heroism from Will Smith to offset the inherent misery of such a narrative, and a slight action-centric presentation. There’s a balance between heavy drama and entertainment, making for a thrilling experience that transforms and evolves beyond suffering, family separation, excessive overworking, and whippings. It’s all accomplished through a desaturated color palette from cinematographer Robert Richardson, highlighting the depressing bleakness of the setting.
Will Smith is Peter (historically known as Whipped Peter due to a photograph of his scarred back that would eventually spread far and wide across America as visual evidence of the sadism behind slavery, a scene painstakingly re-created here with astonishing attention to detail), currently living on Senator John Lyons’ (Timothy Hutton) Louisiana plantation, where he is transferred away from his wife Dodienne (a supporting breakthrough turn from Charmaine Bingwa that continues the trend of Will Smith’s spouse characters receiving powerful monologues temporarily stealing the spotlight away from his fantastic performance) and daughter Betsy (Imani Pullum) to work on a railroad. Expectedly, everyone else there is beaten and battered as they work under grueling conditions.
There’s a bit of a dichotomy brewing within Peter, who believes God will sort everything out, but perhaps questions that faith when his peers use those words against him, wondering where God is now. Nevertheless, Peter discovers that Abraham Lincoln has freed the North and the Union forces are nearby North and could possibly assist, resulting in a spur-of-the-moment escape alongside a few fellow slaves. More importantly, it’s where Emancipation turns into an extended chase sequence and survival story, granting opportunities for Peter to demonstrate those resources (such as using the environmental swamps and his familiarity with them to his advantage, wits removing scents to be chased by vicious dogs, or cauterizing wounds).
Overseeing this railroad construction is slaveowner Jim Fassel (Ben Foster in downright evil mode), who sees what his cohorts don’t; slaves are intelligent and shouldn’t be underestimated. The character is given a lengthy and tragic monologue detailing his childhood friendship with a house slave that often stood in for his absent mother. When he suggested to his father that she stay for dinner and eat at the table, he was then taught hatred in the vilest way. The point is that for as horrific as Jim is, he has a warped sense of respect for what he labels an enemy, which is more character depth than usual for such one-dimensional roles (not that slaveowners should be afforded complexity, but there is intrigue in searching for the humanity within everyone and what makes them monsters).
Unfortunately, some corners are cut, shortchanging the screentime of Dodienne, even though it’s understandable from a storytelling perspective why the family is left offscreen following a certain point. Then there are segments such as Peter fighting an alligator that, while unique to the Louisiana swamps, feel a bit forced into giving the film and Will Smith moments of unnecessary machismo.
However, one final late character conversion turns Emancipation into something far more epic, showing where the budget went, greatly increasing the stakes, emotional impact, and inspirational importance of the slice of American history. Will Smith is in top form, while Antoine Fuqua spins genre familiarity into refreshing territory, literally (given the swamp setting) and figuratively. The character of Peter might not feel fully fleshed out by the end, but his arc is epic in scope and exhilarating.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com