A film review by Craig J. Koban December 22, 2022


2022, R, 132 mins.

Will Smith as Peter  /  Ben Foster as Jim Fassel  /  Charmaine Bingwa as Dodienne  /  Steven Ogg as Confederate Sergeant Howard  /  Gilbert Owuor as Gordon  /  Mustafa Shakir as Lt. Andrew Cailloux  /  Grant Harvey as Leeds  /  Ronnie Gene Blevins as Harrington  /  Jayson Warner Smith as Capt. John Lyons

Directed by Antoine Fuqua  /  Written by Bill Collage




The new Apple Original Film EMANCIPATION finds its inspiration in a photograph of a man known as "Whipped Peter", a runaway slave from a Civil War era Louisiana plantation that managed to free himself from his captors and survived miles upon miles of oppressive swamps to reach a Union stronghold in Baton Rogue.  While he was there a photo of him was taken, with a heavy emphasis on his horrifically scarred back, which was whipped so badly that it looked like coarse leather.  His picture was published worldwide in 1863 and was instrumental in the abolitionist movement to show the inhuman treatment that Africans faced from their slave owners.  It remains one of the most haunting images ever famously captured on film. 

Director Antoine Fuqua and writer William N. Collage take the underlining story of Whipped Peter and envision it with a much larger scope and canvas with EMANCIPATION, which also stars recent Oscar winner Will Smith as the enslaved man that escaped his plantation, found salvation with the Union, and, yes, ended up having his battle ravaged body being used as a subject for the then emerging technology of photography.  History doesn't know much about this man, which requires Fuqua and Collage to fill in the blanks, so to speak, to allow for his extraordinary tale of survival to be given feature length film treatment.  What emerges in EMANCIPATION is - at times - a staggeringly well oiled and visually stunning portrait of this slave battling incomprehensible odds.  The film also pulls no punches whatsoever in terms of showcasing the unspeakable savagery of slave live and the monstrous plantation owners that ruled over their human property with nightmarish ruthlessness.  I think that Fuqua and company have the most noble of intentions with EMANCIPATION, but the picture oftentimes is so propulsive as a chase and survival thriller that I sometimes felt that it could have benefited from a bit more historical introspection.  Still, the film is undeniably potent and viscerally impactful, and features a fully committed and top tier Will Smith leading the charge.   

EMANCIPATION opens in 1863 just after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free THE slaves, but the document - as the film and history presents - did not lead to instant salvation for every African in the nation.  In Louisiana, Peter (Smith) continues to be an enslaved Haitian that does whatever he can to make it through each day so that he can support his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and his young kids.  The family remains deeply entrenched in their religious faith through the worst parts of their enslavement, but their beliefs are severely challenged when Peter is - without warning - taken away against his will to work on the construction of a nearby railroad (judging by the sheer number of slaves that seem to drop dead from exhaustion or are whipped dead when not working as hard as they're instructed, Peter knows that staying in this labor camp is a death sentence).  Escape from the Confederate camp is all but impossible, and not just because of how well manned it is, but also because the overseer Fassel (a thoroughly unhinged Ben Foster) is one of the best in his line of work at stopping any attempts by the slaves to flee.  Fassel may have the soft spoken and outwardly calm demeanor of a southern gentlemen,  but buried beneath that false facade is a total kill-hungry lunatic. 



Miraculously, Peter does manage to escape the brutal horror show that is the camp, but he soon realizes that any attempts to fully secure his freedom comes at a hefty cost: He must enter some of the state's most uncompromising swampland that's not only totally unforgiving to wade through, but also features a smorgasbord of wild animals that want to make him their easy lunch.  Beyond that, it's also unforgivably hot and humid and sources of food and clean water are not abundantly available, leaving the already fatigued Peter pushing himself forward by sheer willpower alone (plus his faith in God).  It's during these sections of EMANCIPATION that Fuqua ratchets up the nail biting tension and pummels viewers with what Peter is forced to endure on the painful road to safety.  One thing that stands out the most here is the film's visual look, and throughout the story Fuqua and cinematographer Robert Richardson gives us an aggressively morose and desaturated color palette that evokes the oppressive bleakness of this world.  There are individual moments when you almost have to squint to see whether or not EMANCIPATION is fully shot in black and white, but color creeps in here and there, but it's fleeting, at best.  There are many birds-eye shots of the brutal environmental terrain that Peter has to navigate through, and you really gain an immediate sense of the limitless dangers that befall him at every waking moment.  Even if the Confederates led by Fassel don't get Peter, the swamp alligators just might. 

EMANCIPATION wisely never soft-pedals its violence either, nor does it shy away from showing slavery for the what it really was and how it affected both slave owner and their property.  The harrowing sequences at that railroad camp are quite hard to watch, mostly stemming from the never-ending viciousness of the slave owners and the inhuman working conditions that Peter and his fellow slaves were cemented in.  The monumental physical demands placed on Peter would be enough to break just about any man, but he bravely soldiers on, waiting for just the right precise moment when he can find a weak spot in the camp and escape.  But, before he does, the sheer sadism of this work detail rightfully evokes what a horrific crime against humanity slavery was and how many in the south - regardless of the presidential order - would stop at nothing to maintain their perceived righteous way of life.  EMANCIPATION contains one of the most chilling moments in recent memory involving Peter on the run being spotted by a cute little white plantation girl.  She soon screams out, without any mercy, "RUNAWAY!" and points at Peter to alert the adults near her.   

This is Smith's first film in the lead since his very deserving Best Actor win for KING RICHARD and, if you're willing to ignore all of the - shall we say - Oscar telecast controversy that continues to typify much of the conversation around him it's really hard to overlook what a powerful performance he gives here on a purely physical level.  Smith has been known in his career for playing rugged action hero roles, but here as Peter the star has to fully inhabit someone that has been devastatingly beaten down by life, but has allowed his Christian faith to carry him forward through any obstacle that comes his way.  I admired how proud of a man Peter is in the film, who knows that he could be killed at any moment by his slave owners, but never backs down from standing toe to toe with his oppressors and showing them that he's not afraid of death in the slightest.  Even when EMANCIPATION takes some flights of fancy with the material and the character of Peter (there are times when he does come off as perhaps too super humanly indestructible), Smith manages to always ground the film and his part in relatable layers.  Equally strong is Ben Foster as his beyond evil slave catcher, whose God complex and complete disregard for human life makes him such frightening presence in the story.  Fassel isn't given much in the way of depth as far as protagonists go, but Foster always finds a way of making him such a relentlessly terrifying presence in the most modest of ways. 

I think where EMANCIPATION loses its way is in its runtime and third act, during which time Peter does find refuge with the Union army and then becomes a soldier within it.  This section reminded me of Edward Zwick's GLORY, which was an infinitely better examination of the black experience in the Civil War on the battlefront, but EMANCIPATION kind of rushes through this part of Peter's story to get to the aforementioned photo taken by a couple of abolitionists.  There's also something to be said about how Fuqua seems to be combating the needs of his film to be an adrenaline charged and feverishly paced chase picture (and, yes, on those levels he succeeds) alongside the dramatic requirements needed to pull off his emotionally charged historical tale.  Fuqua has made a career of competently helming blunt force trauma action films, but I feel that he could have benefited from a more penitent eye with this material.  EMANCIPATION occasionally feels at odds with itself: It wants to be a sobering prestige drama/piece of Oscar bait and an outdoor survival thriller and a war epic and a tale of human perseverance...but they don't always coalesce smoothly together.   

EMANCIPATION is an exercise in technically assured filmmaking craft, to be sure, and as an action thriller it's certainly nerve-wracking and suspenseful.  That, and Smith admirably gives it is all in a physically demanding part that deserves an audience.  As a historical drama, though, Fuqua's film didn't emotionally resonate with me as much.  I'm left in a position of recommending EMANCIPATION, but reluctantly so.  If you're looking for a finer cinematic commentary on this damning historical period then seek out Steve McQueen's 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  If you're looking for a fairly exhilarating and richly atmospheric on-the-run thriller also set in the same time period, then seek out EMANCIPATION. 

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