Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation is a film with good intentions and a strong performance from Will Smith but struggles to go beyond its vapid filmmaking.
The horrors of slavery have been a constant focus in cinema since the medium’s beginning. For many, it’s been the most common way for people to discover this dark part of history within society. As America continues to come to terms with its horrific past with slavery, cinema has, for better or worse, become a hub for many different harrowing tales and dramatisations of the horrors this time of history contained. Emancipation is another slavery film that is made with strong intentions but unfortunately struggles to say anything new or impactful within this space.
Emancipation follows Peter (Will Smith), a man who escapes from slavery at the cusp of the Emancipation Proclaimation, an order from Abraham Lincoln granting slaves complete freedom. As Peter embarks on a dangerous journey through the perilous swamps of Louisiana to get back to his family, he finds himself in the middle of a transitioning society with those seeking to maintain the old order hunting him down by any means necessary.
Emancipation is largely based on the true story of “Whipped Peter”, an African American slave known for being the subject of an infamous series of photographs showing the extensive scars surrounding his back after years of abuse. For the film, the focus of the man’s story is less on his massive impact on the success of the abolitionist movement and wider human society but more so on his story of escaping the shackles of slavery and the human resilience within him. Despite the harrowing world that the film centers itself around, Emancipation ultimately presents itself as an uplifting story of human perseverance in the eyes of evil. However, despite the good intentions that are no doubt behind and in front of the camera, the film’s issues quickly begin to creep up.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua with cinematography by Robert Richardson, Emancipation makes a bizarre choice in having the film live within several harsh layers of desaturation. On paper, this isn’t a bad idea and while it does work to the film’s advantage at times, the visual palette of the film feels less like a nuanced creative choice and more like a desperate act from the filmmakers to make Emancipation feel even more aesthetically horrific than the content within it. One sequence set in a burning mansion is admittedly a strong highlight of this visual choice being used well but when the film mostly takes place in the day, it leads to an ugly visual look that does more to hurt Emancipation than help it in reaching the finish line.
The main attraction of Emancipation is undeniably the lead performance of Will Smith in the role of Peter. From the outset, Peter is seen in the film as a man of faith and an undying love for both his family and God with that love being the fuel that carries him through the unforgiving landscape that the film places itself in. While Smith undeniably brings an intense bruised energy to the film as Peter, the central flaw of Emancipation falls ultimately on how one note and undeveloped Peter is as a person. As we follow him through a grueling obstacle course of sorts within the swamps of Louisiana, there’s a certain point where the constant push of harrowing content and desaturated cinematography within the film becomes trite and frustratingly mundane.
Emancipation is a story made with the best intentions and a strong performance from Will Smith, but it ultimately stumbles to the finish line as a slavery film more obsessed with maintaining a harsh aesthetic than telling a meaningful story of human resilience. As the film rushes through its third act that aims to quickly tell the other side of Peter’s story, it shows that Emancipation is less interested in the human act of perseverance and more so in the aesthetic horrors of slavery within the cinematic language of survival cinema. It’s not necessarily a bad film, but it’s ultimately a film in need of something truly unique and bold within its filmmaking to truly give the story of Peter justice.
Emancipation is now available to watch on Apple TV+.