R, 132 mins.
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 LyonsDirected 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
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
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
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
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
but buried beneath that false facade is a total kill-hungry lunatic.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.