‘Emancipation’ walks to the finish line when it could have run

By Ben Konuch

“They cut me. They burn me. They burn my neck. They burn my feet. They break the bones in my body more times than I can count. But they never, never break me.”

“Emancipation,” the new historical drama from Antoine Fuqua starring Will Smith, follows the story of Peter, an enslaved man who embarks upon a daring escape and a perilous journey to get his freedom and his family back. The film is loosely based on the real-life events of Peter and Gordon, two men who escaped their enslavers by fleeing to the Union, where reporters were able to photograph their heavily scarred backs to show the true, horrific nature of slavery to the North. The picture of the real Peter’s back was published in newspapers around the world to give conclusive proof to the cruelty of slavery which J.W. Mercer, a surgeon of the First Louisiana Colored Regiment, said was seen often by the Union soldiers and now could be proven by the photos.

But is “Emancipation” that true story? No, it is not. It is based on truth and contains elements of true historical events, but the way this film portrays Peter and Gordon is largely fictional, as very little is known about the lives of these men beyond the rallying cry against slavery that they became. Director Antoine Fuqua (“The Magnificent Seven” and “The Equalizer”) has crafted a tense, emotional journey that presents some very important themes and historical ideas, but the pieces don’t quite fit together well. They do fit some, as “Emancipation” is entertaining and worth a watch for Will Smith’s quiet, determined performance as Peter alone, but it feels like the puzzle pieces of its story and its themes are a little too big to fit smoothly without jamming them together.

The real picture of Whipped Peter that inspired the film, whose suffering and bravery should never be forgotten.

In terms of presentation, “Emancipation” paints a vivid picture of the bleak suffering of Confederate-era slaves, and its visual presentation mirrors that. Fuqua chooses to make the film with a washed-out color scheme that keeps most of the film in black and white and gray with the occasional splash of vivid color, like the bright red blood of whippings or the soft blue sky of freedom. I love this stylistic choice, as it gives “Emancipation” a visual representation of its conceptual themes of stifling darkness and the bright light of hope.

The performances are the biggest strength “Emancipation” has to offer. While Will Smith has been the center of controversy over the last year, his performance in this film is without a doubt outstanding. Peter is a quiet man, and once he embarks on his escape, says even fewer words. Yet Smith is a master of nonverbal acting and the conveying of emotions and thoughts through tiny mannerisms and subtle actions that give us everything we need to know about Peter. This is a subtle performance and it is a fantastic one, giving the moments when Peter does react strongly so much more emotional and narrative weight. 

One of the best scenes in the film comes when Peter finds a burning plantation and rescues an enslaved young girl, only to come face to face with one of his pursuers while trying to save her. The crushing grief, the desperate hope, and the slow-building rage at evil and injustice are all on full display despite so few words being said.

Ben Foster as Jim Fassal, a Confederate slave hunter who embodies the indifferent evil of racism, gives just as great of a performance. His character is a terrifying, grotesque look at the worst side of human nature and the utter disconnect from the humanity of those who don’t fit in a certain mold. 

Fassal doesn’t look down on the black people in the south as lesser or inferior in the same way some of his men do, instead recognizing their intelligence and aspects of their humanity, but is afraid that giving them too much will weaken the structure of society and that they’ll take from and overtake the white man. This warped and wicked view of racism shows the different sides of the vile inequalities at the heart of the Confederacy showcased in a few deeply disturbing scenes.

“Emancipation” shows the depths that Black men were willing to go through to secure the freedom that should have never been taken from them

One of the most interesting concepts of “Emancipation” was its tackling of religious themes. Peter is a deeply religious man, and his faith in God remains firm by the film’s ending. It’s his faith that gives him strength in a few scenes to keep going. At the same time, “Emancipation” exposes the nasty truth of how many Southerners used Biblical passages to enforce their un-Christlike treatment of black folk and their twisted non-biblical view of slavery. This shows one of the vilest aspects of the war in how “Christians” on both sides used the Word of God to enforce their views, and how the South used it to demean and abuse the sanctity of God-given lives created equally in God’s eyes no matter what the color of one’s skin may be.

The story and events captured on screen unfortunately are where “Emancipation” starts to falter. Once Peter escapes into the Bayou, the film shifts into an action thriller, mirroring the “wilderness survival” type films such as “The Edge” or “The Grey” and even loses a part of its realism. While what the real-life Peter endured was undeniably horrific and most certainly a terrifying escape while being pursued, the film takes these themes and runs with them past what’s historically true or probably even plausible. As a result, a great chunk of “Emancipation” contrasts with its message and historical purpose, and while it is an undeniably entertaining film and well worth a watch, it misses an opportunity to be something greater for the story that it ultimately fails to do full justice to.

I give “Emancipation” a 7/10.

“Emancipation” is now streaming on Apple TV+

Ben Konuch is a sophomore Strategic Communication student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and hanging out with crazy MuKappa friends.

Images courtesy of Apple Original Films.

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