Emancipation Review

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Almost no one can get it right when dealing with slavery on screen. To candy-coat it is to deny that it ever happened, and depicting it as it is—warts and all—is not likely to be consumable. Since the contemporary audience already knows that slavery is wicked, they may feel self-satisfied, while black viewers find it just traumatic. It’s a cautious path to thread, and only few filmmakers like Barry Jenkins (The Underground Railroad) or Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) have offered fresh perspectives into one of history’s most brutal and disreputable periods. We are exploring the Emancipation movie here.

In Emancipation, Antoine Fuqua daringly takes another view on this history by telling the story of ‘Whipped Peter’, an actual slave whose picture was taken in the 19th century showing his mutilated back covered with scars from whipping. Thus, this is essentially a two-hour film based off a single photograph which Collage will necessarily take some liberties with Peter’s story because there are few known details about him. However, “Collage and Fuqua” has been guided by one idea which gives its name — their story is about freedom: how an individual escaped being enslaved according to his own rules through pure determination.

It sounds noble but the filmmakers see fit to show us familiar gory scenes used in almost all such movies as a means of background information presentation. Therefore, we should bear witness to flogging scenes, screaming that might kill one alive during these moments; branding using hot iron rods; cotton picking under scorching midday sun; racial slurs flying out of owners’ mouths; etcetera – within just ten minutes. It loses all meaning since it is too brutally plain-spoken.

Will Smith does however save us from feeling too much cruelty-by-numbers in Act 1. With such talent as Smith possesses one might have expected him to go over the top; but kudos for choosing to be subtle, with his eyes just about above water and an unbroken line of emotions that is on the verge of breaking. He can do flashy acting such as this, but it’s in moments of silence like one when Smith offers a quiet prayer while throwing a corpse into a mass grave that he really shines.

Smith looks like someone who could make it through extreme hardship and still maintain his identity in both face and physicality. When Peter finally revolts after hearing whispers regarding Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the movie turns into a chase thriller involving him and Fassel (Ben Foster), the relentless tracker. This is what most of the story revolves around; although it remains monotonous in its own way – you can only show so much suffering; Fuqua weaves thick suspense and danger throughout every scene even over dinner. Everything from little rich kids to alligators may pose danger.

Indeed, this film is distinct in nature occasionally being too simple. Like Tony Scott or Zack Snyder, Fuqua is mainly concerned about visual storytelling with everything guided by his heart rather than reason; another version of this story by some other director would have probably been more profound. (Ideally though not necessarily less desaturated: a washed-out sepia look for something ‘historical-tea-stained’, but which kind of just appears bland.)

The Emancipation final act is when it becomes really interesting, with Peter who doesn’t run anymore and instead joins the Civil War to get free. This epic war climax –a large, bloody battlefield fighting for freedom by a Black US regiment– seems to me like a register Fuqua finds most suitable for him; still just as violent but at least there is a suggestion that avoiding one’s master was just the first step in the struggle, ending on Braveheartian triumph note. Honestly though, it would have been better had it began without so much heartlessness.

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