Lately, I’ve been examining my deep ambivalence toward slave movies, an attitude motivated by suspicion of Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for tragic black characters.
These films visualize, often gruesomely, the terror and violence inflicted on blacks before, during, and after the heyday of slavery. There has been a recent shift towards depicting triumph and rebellion, but for the most part these movies portray brutality. They are promoted as history lessons and used as a bargaining chip for empathy. The fanfare that surrounds them can seem cheap and insensitive; it may seem easier for a skeptical viewer not to participate at all.
The bottom line Interesting story, disappointing execution.
Interesting story, disappointing execution.
And yet telling these stories remains important because we live in a reality where most people’s contempt for black lives is only exceeded 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 volunteer work. Where talking about race and the legacy of racism in schools has become illegal in some states.
This kind of weather saddles movies like Antoine Fuqua’s wobbly drama Emancipation (which opens December 2 in theaters before its debut on Apple TV+ on December 9) with a considerable burden of responsibility. So it’s disappointing when they don’t get to be much more than Oscar bait.
Written by Bill Collage, Emancipation is a propulsive, action-oriented interpretation of the true-life story of Gordon, an enslaved man known as “Whipped Peter.” A picture of his eerily lacerated back was taken of him at a Union army camp in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1863 and circulated widely in newspapers and periodicals. The image prompted 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 sought freedom.
Gordon, called Peter in EmancipationHe is played by Will Smith, an actor whose year has been defined by a ridiculous regret tour. He slapped Chris Rock in March during the Oscars ceremony, a moment that prompted Hollywood to act in ways never before seen when it comes to holding other controversial celebrities, past and present, accountable.
Hampered by a spare, spiritless script, Smith delivers a performance marked by facial expressions, physical movement, and a Haitian accent that struggles to shake her studied quality. A perpetual scowl and knitted brows communicate the toughness of Peter’s life, while an upright pose shows unwavering self-possession.
The film opens with a domestic scene, establishing Peter’s loving relationship with his wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), their children, and his faith. Their tender moment is cut short when plantation overseers break into their cabin to take Peter away: he has been sold to a Confederate Army labor camp, where he, along with hundreds of other enslaved people, are forced to work in a railway. EmancipationThe tone of is defined by these abrupt and jarring changes between softness and harshness, intimacy and violence.
At camp, Peter quickly becomes a symbol of defiance and courage. His ability to look supervisors in the eye when they point the barrel of a gun at his forehead, along with his intolerance for injustice, make him an admirable figure. So 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 trip that requires traversing the dangerous Louisiana swamps.
Robert Richardson’s cinematography turns Peter’s world into a morose gray. It adds a downbeat air to what, in Smith’s words, purports to be a “freedom movie.” It also makes it hard to appreciate Peter as he runs through the softwood forest, plunges into the muddy water of the swamp, and hides in the thick trunks of towering trees.
most of Emancipation, which runs for 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: when Fassel’s father realized his son had befriended his caretaker, a young slave girl, the man killed her in front of the boy’s eyes. Fassel internalized his father’s disappointment, and what started out as shame turned into something the film portrays as complicated hatred.
Fassel, unlike the other white overseers in the camp, sees the enslaved men, and especially the runaways, as persistent and intelligent. it is not clear how Emancipation he wants viewers to process this information, but it seems we need to understand that Fassel, on some levels, respects Peter, adding another layer to his dangerous game of cat and mouse.
With his deep knowledge of the natural world, Peter is always one step ahead of Fassel. The film, for the most part, keeps viewers grounded in Peter’s perspective, a point of view that transforms the Louisiana bayou into a terrifying landscape of death traps and potential exposures. When he’s not avoiding poisonous snakes or fighting alligators, Peter is devising ways to keep Fassel and her bloodthirsty hounds off her trail. He makes ingenious use of the land around him: he forages for onions to rub on his skin, uses honey as an ointment for his wounds, and listens to birds fly away from canyons in the distance.
Emancipation he treats the details of Peter’s journey with respect and great admiration, but his telling, especially after he finds the Union army camp in Baton Rouge, leaves one wondering who Peter was as a person. The drama feels flimsy when it gets away from the swamps, making the politics of the time almost secondary to the visual spectacle of a harrowing escape. Fuqua’s natural mastery over action material is most apparent when Peter battles the natural elements or fights with Overseers who catch up with him. The quieter and more dramatic sections, however, require a firmer and more subtle hand than the Training Day Director’s offers.
After Peter joins the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, an all-black regiment within the Union army, Emancipation it becomes a confusing jumble of messages. The film sparks some interesting threads about racism within the military, an acknowledgment that the North was no utopia for the formerly enslaved, and questions about the limits of freedom after slavery is abolished. But you don’t have time to delve into them.
EmancipationInstead, it remains in a sensational battle scene precipitated by an attack on Confederate soldiers by the Native Guard. The image of the men, some born free, some previously enslaved, running across the field waving the American flag has a strange and jarring tone. It is too stark a conclusion for a nation still shying away from its past.
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