Antoine Fuqua and Will Smith team-up for thrilling, stirring effort
Over the course of one night in March, Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness, Ali, Men in Black) hit the highest highs of his profession as an actor, winning a much-coveted Academy Award for King Richard, an authorized biopic of Richard Williams, the unconventional, unorthodox father if generational tennis stars Venus and Serena. Those highs, however, were tempered by the Slap Heard Around the World, Smith’s onstage slap of comedian Chris Rock for a borderline insulting joke aimed at Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith. Since then, Smith has been practically on lockdown, keeping out of the public eye, and working with his PR team to rehabilitate his now tarnished public image.
Smith’s various attempts to rehabilitate himself publicly ultimately not succeed (that’s for audiences to decide), but for now, audiences and critics will have to contend and/or engage with Smith’s latest film, Emancipation, a slave drama-thriller centered on Peter (Smith), a fictionalized iteration of the ex-slave who appeared in a photograph for Harper’s Weekly in 1863. Peter’s heavily scarred back, the result of years of abuse and torture by the Southern white men who legally owned him at the time. It’s a searing, devastating, ultimately unforgettable image, of the abstract (the concept of slavery) made painfully, indelibly concrete (the realities of slavery).
Given the relative newness of photography as a commercial art form in the mid-19th century, the photo of Peter’s scarred back became a key image in the fight to abolish slavery in America. For Peter, whose full story has been lost to time and neglect, the photo remains a testament both to the unimaginable abuse he both endured and survived. Subsequent images and stories suggest Peter joined the Union Army, fighting to ensure his own future freedom and the freedom of the enslaved peoples he left behind when he made an incredibly daring escape through the Louisiana Bayou.
Those elements form the crux of director Antoine Fuqua (The Magnificent Seven, Southpaw, The Equalizer, Training Day) and writer William N. Collage’s (Allegiant, Assassin’s Creed, Exodus: Gods and Kings) enthralling recounting of Peter’s seemingly impossible escape from his captors and eventually, his service in the Union Army, helping to defeat the Confederacy that enslaved Peter and his family, including the wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), and children he left behind when his enslavers literally sold his body to building and repairing a Confederate railway.
A well-respected action-genre specialist, Fuqua brings a not unfamiliar toolkit to Emancipation, crafting images, scenes, and sequences that work on a purely visceral level. Fuqua takes a blunt, subtlety-free approach to Peter’s experiences, from the cruel, capricious mistreatment he suffers at the hands of his captors, to witnessing the mistreatment of others, including Confederate deserters forced to work alongside Peter and other enslaved men. Treated as subhuman and thus deserving of whatever sadistic treatment his captors can imagine, Peter suffers brutal blows to his body and mind.
No passive observer of the misfortune of others or even of himself, Peter’s undeniable desire to escape his captors, to rejoin the family he left behind, gains clarity and purpose when he learns the Union Army has taken a Louisiana port city. Joining the Union Army, requires crossing the swampy Louisiana Bayou, overcoming natural dangers (i.e., alligators) and human ones, a group of unrelenting slave-hunters led by Jim Fassel (Ben Foster), whose cruelty is only matched by a cunning that makes him a formidable foe and obstacle to Peter’s goal to reach Union lines.
As an otherwise simple, straightforward manhunt thriller, Emancipation certainly delivers on both its promise and its premise, folding one tense, suspenseful sequence into another. Every risk or danger sidestepped barely gives Peter and the men who escape with him a moment to catch their individual and collective breaths before being plunged into the next risk or danger. That the stakes are always at their highest (not just recapture, but likely execution) adds to the intensity of the bayou-set sequences. Add to that a powerfully moving, anguished performance by Smith, among one of his career bests, and Emancipation rises from a throwaway late fall/early December release to must-see, essential filmmaking.
Emancipation begins streaming via AppleTV+ on Friday, December 9th.