Will Smith gives a harrowing performance.
We review the Apple TV+ film Emancipation, which does not contain spoilers.
Let’s get one thing out of the way real quick – Will Smith gives a harrowing performance as “Peter” in Emancipation, a brutal and uncompromising historical retelling of a famous historical figure that provides the man with the Hollywood treatment. However, this is an attempt at a genre film that many are miscategorizing as hollow. There is substance there, just not the kind you expect at award season. It’s the kind of film that lacks character development because of its visceral and pulse-pounding nature. A feeling that rarely lets up.
Emancipation is based on the true story of “Gordan,” also called “Whipped Peter,” a man who became famous because of the infamous photograph taken of him when he escaped a slavery camp helping build a railroad for the Confederate army. As the story goes, Peter traveled over forty miles in ten days by escaping through a maze of dangerous swamps and with confederate militia hot on his trail. In the film, Peter was taken from his family, separating him from his children and wife Dodienne (Black Box‘s Charmaine Bingwa) a few weeks prior. He ends up in a Confederate army to help with manual labor in the fight against the Union. Chasing Peter through the dangerous and muggy Bayou is Fassel (Ben Foster), an evil enforcer who thinks a higher authority is guiding his hands. His job is to chase down runaways and make an example of them.
Emancipation was directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Bill Collage (Assassin’s Creed). Their film is light on facts, not because of incompetence, but because very little is known about the man. What is largely known about Peter is a story from a Harper’s Weekly article by Vincent Coyler, a humanitarian that helped freedmen and Indigenous people. However, many historians feel the story was a fabrication to highlight the issue. And many point out that “Peter” and “Gordan” may be different people. However, the script should not receive criticism for any historical inaccuracy. Why? Because Collage is working with little material about an important historical figure, one whose photo was responsible for changing the attitude toward how enslaved people were being treated humanely.
The film has a sweeping feel, and much of that credit goes to Robert Richardson (Kill Bill), who washes out the scenes of color and covers vast amounts of endless wetlands that give you the sense of what Peter is up against. That serves the film well, the action side of the picture anyway, which Fuqua is well known for. The misstep here is the frantic third act that pushes past the most well-known fact of Peter – the infamous photo of his horridly scarred back. The non-stop action would have benefited if the film had stopped there and examined the gravity of this event rather than making up a fictional happy moment to make the whole issue easier for viewers to swallow.
What you can’t argue is Will Smith’s powerful performance that he carries on his broad shoulders. When Smith’s Peter confronts an officer in the Union Army who questions his toughness and grit, it is the star’s finest moment. The silent moments are engrossing. His stare is piercing. The delivery is powerful, full of anger, but always moving. That, along with the suspense built up throughout Fuqua’s film and the historical significance behind it, makes Emancipation a journey worth taking.
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