It comes as some relief that Antoine Fuqua’s “Emancipation,” starring Will Smith as a runaway slave in Civil War-era Louisiana, is not, at least traditionally speaking, an Oscar movie.
Despite the film’s important historical backdrop, its awards-season timing and its inevitable connection to last March’s Academy Awards ceremony, the site of the Slap, “Emancipation” is not quite the solemn prestige picture you could easily mistake it for. It’s an action thriller.
Fuqua, a maker of muscular genre movies, has crafted something with less in common than an acutely piercing drama like “12 Years a Slave,” and instead made a film more akin to a gritty, survival actioner — a chase movie that takes its potency less from psychological realism than a brutal B-movie construction. Immersed in the desperate but cunning escape of Peter (Smith), “Emancipation” is a straightforward parable of Black resistance and spiritual perseverance.
That approach makes “Emancipation,” which debuts Friday in theaters and premieres Dec. 9 on Apple TV+, something distinct from many recent big-screen treatments of slavery and also more shallow. Fuqua’s film is often harrowing and gripping but also less nuanced and too narrowly confined in genre conventions than its real-life protagonist deserves.
Peter, whose name was Gordon according to many accounts, was a pivotal historical figure but also a little-known one. In March 1863, he escaped from a Louisiana plantation. Ten days later, after a more than 40-mile flight, he reached the Union army stationed in Baton Rouge. There, a photograph was taken of him seated on a chair with his bare back — mangled by a crisscross of scars — turned to the camera. Gordon went on to join the Union army but the photograph, known as “Whipped Peter,” became one of the most iconic portraits of slavery’s barbarism, and helped fuel abolitionist movements in the North.
“Emancipation,” penned by William N. Collage, takes those few facts and expands Peter’s tale. Fuqua, who drains the nearly black-and-white film almost entirely of color, has given Peter some familiar notes of family and faith. Peter, here depicted as Haitian with a Creole accent, is ripped away from his family to be sent to help build a railroad for the Confederates, his steadfast goal is to get back to his wife (Charmaine Bingwa) and children. With an unflagging belief in God, Peter’s torturous journey takes on Biblical dimensions. So great is the violence that surrounds him and other enslaved men that the monochrome swamps of Louisiana morph into a metaphorical wasteland. “Where is God?” one man asks. “He is nowhere.”
The white man who guards against runaways with a menacing relish, Fassel (Ben Foster), tells Peter that he’s his god. “You walk the Earth because I let you,” he snarls. When Peter grasps his moment to flee, it’s Fassel, with two others, who chase after on horseback. Peter, initially with several others including Gordon (Gilbert Owuor) and John (Michael Luwoye), sets out on his own. Few films reside quite so much in the swamp as “Emancipation” does, as Peter ingeniously navigates through mud, snakes and alligators with the sound, as he says, of “Lincoln’s canons” guiding his way to Baton Rouge.
As Peter, Smith relies less on his natural charisma than perhaps ever before. The character hardly speaks. As a physical feat, Smith’s performance is formidable. But there’s so little here that fleshes out Peter, and little resonates about him. If “Emancipation” is partly a work of historical imagination, the film has supplied Peter little beyond the most basic of characterizations, ones drawn more from countless other thrillers than from history.
Throughout, Robert Richardson’s cinematography is often mesmerizing, if sometimes distracting. The camera draws too much attention to itself, just as do occasional flashes of color peppered throughout. But there are also mesmerizing black-and-white tableaus that seem to want to pull “Emancipation” to a higher realm, albeit at the cost of sticking rigorously to Peter’s perspective.
Still, as Fuqua’s previous films (“The Guilty,” “The Equalizer,” “Training Day”) have shown, a lean thriller can be powerful thing. “Emancipation” isn’t leaden with self-importance, but it is single-minded in its depiction of the savage inhumanity of slavery, and one man’s courageous, indominable refusal to accept it. In the film’s final third, war proves to be just as violent and merciless. Hell, in “Emancipation,” is elsewhere, too.
“Emancipation,” an Apple TV+ release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for strong racial violence, disturbing images and language. Running time: 132 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.