Emancipation attempts, and mightily fails, to balance a film stodgy enough to play in a high school classroom with Hollywood’s typically rousing approach to historical epic filmmaking.
What immediately stands out in Emancipation is the color, or, to be more precise, the lack of it. Opening with the camera gliding over tree tops, swamps, and fields of cotton, it becomes quickly apparent that the film has been digitally desaturated to the point of being nearly monochromatic. It is undeniably an attention-grabbing choice, rare for an expensive-looking historical epic, but this effect, like much of the film, feels off. Vegetation still appears vibrant and green, fire burns yellow and red against gray skies and landscapes, and the film alternates between black-and-white and full (albeit still muted) color, even within the same scene. But beyond the incessant futzing with the color grading, Emancipation is aestheticized within an inch of its life: the frame rate is over-cranked so that action moves at different speeds within the same shot, and the camera moves weightlessly as though hovering a few feet off the ground, or else it whips along in pursuit at dizzying speeds. It would be fair to ask what purpose any of this has in telling the story of the escaped slave famously depicted in the 1863 photograph, “Whipped Peter” (which has been credited with raising the public’s awareness of the horrors of slavery). Or, more pointedly, one could question why this true-ish account of dehumanizing violence, man’s capacity for cruelty, and survival against the elements has been lit and shot like a Nike commercial.
The slave Peter is played by Will Smith, who was last widely seen collecting the Academy Award for Best Actor back in March (which, as everyone recalls, was the most memorable part of his evening). Employing a regrettable Bobby Boucher patois, we’re introduced to Peter shortly before he’s ripped away from his family, sold off, and carted away in front of his crying children, but not before defiantly jawing back at the white slave masters who put their hands on him. Defiant is a fair way of describing the character on the whole. Despite near constant threats of being shot, beaten, branded, maimed, torn apart by dogs, and decapitated for so much as a wayward glance, Peter spends much of the film standing up to mean, well-armed white men, all but begging them to go ahead and make his day. That allusion to Eastwood in Sudden Impact isn’t made lightly and speaks to what is arguably the film’s true purpose: re-establishing the 54-year-old Smith as a take-no-crap action star.
Don’t let the Oscar-bait trappings or subject matter fool you: deep down this is every bit the trashy shoot-em-up that director Antoine Fuqua (who’s spent the last two decades doing nothing other than reinforcing what a qualitative outlier Training Day is on his CV) routinely churns out. Here are but a handful of examples of what’s meant by that: Peter escapes from a work camp by flinging lime into the face of one of the guards — that old chestnut — while tending to a mass grave. In the same sequence, he ruthlessly amputates a man’s hand with a shovel — sure, he was already incapacitated on the ground, but why deny the audience a racist sumbitch getting his what for, or a truly gory prosthetic effect, for that matter). Later, Smith stabs a runaway-slave tracker in the face with a homemade crucifix and, in a scene which has already taken on a certain amount of infamy, fights a CGI alligator to the death. It’s all so nakedly pandering to an audience that wished the scourge of slavery had more fist pumps and applause-beats built into it. Sure, Ben Foster’s rat-tailed slave catcher is as evil as they come — his account of betraying his childhood nanny comes awfully close to giving voice to the “great replacement theory,” being workshopped here more than 150 years before making nightly appearances on Tucker Carlson Tonight — but we can feel fairly certain he’ll be felled by a well-timed bullet, perhaps even while dramatically holding Smith’s character at gunpoint. It’s just the kind of a film.
Not that that’s inherently a fatal flaw. Tarantino’s made two revisionist Westerns (ironically they too were shot by this film’s cinematographer, the great Robert Richardson) that were not only disgustingly violent, but also contorted history to elevate the role of Black characters in their own liberation, and those films have myriad admirers, myself among them. Disreputability is a viable alternative to dull respectability, and who’s to say one of the most financially successful Black movie stars and directors of all time haven’t earned the right to depict this shameful chapter of U.S. history as a moment of empowerment and triumph? One where our hero — as the title would indicate — plays a direct role in not only his own emancipation, but that of his family as well. But the film wants it every way imaginable. We get fiery explosions, nightmare imagery including a sequence where horses lit aflame gallop past Peter, rousing for-your-consideration style speeches (the most eye-rolling of which involves Smith standing up to a Union officer and letting it be known that for all the indignities he’s suffered, his spirit has not been broken), and massive battles where Peter not only leads the charge, but is a dead-eyed shot despite picking up a rifle for the first time only twelve hours earlier. It is in every respect typical Hollywood bullshit no different from something like the Mel Gibson-wins-the-Revolutionary-War film, The Patriot. Yet the film also holds itself up as bringing to light the inhumanity of slavery, drawing a direct line from the “Whipped Peter” photograph to its own ambitions and objectives of educating the public. Not only does the film end with the actual “Whipped Peter” photograph, which we see faithfully recreated earlier in the film, but it concludes with an especially “well, duh” title card: “Finally, on June 19, 1865, nearly 4 million enslaved people were recognized as free.” Nifty trick that, sneaking eye-gouging, gator-stabbing, and drone shots into something stodgy enough to play for a tenth grade history class, but the film feels like the worst of both worlds. It’s truly “Give us free” meets “Just Do It.”
You can currently stream Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation on Apple TV+.