10 Movies like Emancipation you must watch

By Nicole Ackman
Published: January 7, 2023 (Last updated: February 8, 2024)

We discuss 10 Movies like Emancipation you must watch. Add these excellent recommendations to your film watchlist. 

Will Smith has made his return to film in the Civil War drama Emancipation. The film is loosely inspired by the famous photograph of Gordon, or “Whipped Peter”. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, it follows an enslaved man (Smith) who escapes his plantation in Louisiana, is pursued through swamps, and eventually joins the Union army. While certainly well-intentioned and boasting a strong performance by Smith, the film itself has received mixed-negative reviews.

In his review for Ready Steady Cut, M.N. Miller said, “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.” Meanwhile, in her review for The Atlantic, Shirley Li noted, “Despite a committed cast and often stunning cinematography, the film’s script is too blunt and the direction too ham-fisted to make Emancipation anything more than another rote—albeit expensive—entry in the slavery-movie genre.”

Here are ten other movies that you might want to watch as a follow-up to Emancipation.

10 Movies like Emancipation you must watch

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Steve McQueen’s biopic of Solomon Northup, based on the 1853 slave memoir of the same name, is widely considered one of the best and most visceral depictions of slavery in the United States. Northup was a free man kidnapped by two con men in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana where he lived for 12 years before regaining his freedom. The film, while not without some problems, is a sensitive, thoughtful, and brutal depiction of what slavery looked like in the Deep South in the 1840s and 1850s, with stunning performances.

12 Years a Slave was widely praised by critics and made an impressive $187 million at the box office. It won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress, and received six additional nominations. The film features an all-star cast of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, and Sarah Paulson.

Harriet (2019)

It’s shocking that it took until 2019 for a major film about Harriet Tubman to be made. But Kasi Lemmons proved herself to be a great choice to direct such a biopic, which covered Tubman’s spirituality, first escape to freedom, life up North, and many trips back down South to rescue family and friends. It has survival adventure elements like Emancipation but does a much better job balancing them with a nuanced portrayal of slavery and life for escaped enslaved people. The lead performance by Cynthia Erivo as Tubman is astounding.

Harriet received mostly positive reviews and grossed $43 million against a $17 million budget. Erivo received a nomination for Best Actress and Best Song at the Academy Awards. The film features Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe.

Amistad (1997)

Another film that deals with slavery is Stephen Spielberg’s Amistad, based on the 1839 true story of a Spanish slave ship on which the captured Africans mutinied and gained control of the ship. They were captured by an American ship and entered into an international legal battle that led to a US Supreme Court case in 1841. The film was based on the 1987 book by Professor Howard Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy. Like Emancipation, it’s a fictionalized version of a true story and shows the horrors of slavery and the courage of those able to take a stand against it.

The film was well-received, critically and commercially. The film features Morgan Freeman, Djimon Hounsou, Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Lincoln (2012)

Another film of Spielberg’s, Lincoln provides a very different perspective on the 13th Amendment. While Emancipation takes its title from the Emancipation Proclamation as its main character seeks freedom, Lincoln examines the titular president’s last four months of life and his efforts to abolish slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment. Rather than a traditional biopic, the film centers on this very specific period of Lincoln’s life. It actually highlights “Whipped Peter,” the man who inspired Emancipation.

Lincoln was wildly successful and was nominated for twelve Oscars, winning Best Actor and Best Production Design. It grossed more than $275 million. The film features Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, James Spader, and Hal Holbrook.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Another film inspired by true events is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (not to be confused with the silent 1915 movie). An impressive directorial debut from Parker, the movie follows Nat Turner, an enslaved man in Virginia who led a slave rebellion in 1831. Like Emancipation, it highlights the cruelty of the system of enslavement in the United States.

The film received positive reviews, but struggled at the box office (partially because of a controversy concerning Parker), only making $16 million. The film features Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, and Aunjanue Ellis.

Freedom (2014)

This film, directed by Peter Cousens, followed two generations of enslaved men — one being brought from Africa to the British colony of South Carolina in the earlier days of American slavery and the other escaping from slavery in Virginia via the Underground Railroad. Like Emancipation, it’s interested in the impact of slavery on families.

Freedom didn’t make much of an impact and received negative reviews, that criticized its dullness and emphasis on the white Christians who helped enslaved people escape. Still, it presents an interesting comparison with Emancipation. The film features Cuba Gooding Jr., William Sadler, and Sharon Leal.

The Retrieval (2013)

The Retrieval is a lower-budget film than most on this list, but it is impressive what director Chris Eska was able to do with limited resources. It presents a compelling moral dilemma as a Black young boy is sent to retrieve and deliver a Black man to bounty hunters in the South. Like Emancipation, The Retrieval is interested in what occurred following the Emancipation Proclamation. The film features Ashton Sanders, Bill Oberst Jr., and Alfonso Freeman.

Unchained Memories (2003)

If, after watching Emancipation, you would like to know more about the true story of enslaved people in the United States, the HBO documentary Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives is a great place to start. It draws from the interviews with former enslaved people that were collected during the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project branch of the Works Progress Administration. These WPA Slave Narratives make up much of what we know about the enslaved experience, despite the biases present in them (due to who was doing the interviewing). In the documentary, actors narrate the interviews to bring them to life.

13th (2016)

Another great documentary to follow up Emancipation is 13th by director Ava DuVernay. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, it demonstrates how the Thirteenth Amendment allowed a form of slavery to continue in its clause that allowed involuntary servitude as a punishment for conviction of a crime. DuVernay shows that slavery lives on in the prison-industrial complex, just as it did in the laws of Jim Crow.

The Revenant (2015)

If you enjoyed Emancipation for its survival story aspects, then you would likely also enjoy The Revenant. The survival Western directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu is based on the novel of the same name by Michael Punke. Set in the 1820s, the lead character Hugh Glass is left for dead after being attacked by a bear and sets out to seek revenge against his companions. However, he must also survive the harsh conditions of the wilderness.

Grossing $533 million at the box office, The Revenant was both a commercial and critical success. It received 12 Oscar nominations and won Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Cinematography. The film features Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Domhnall Gleeson.

Do you have any other recommendations for movies like Emancipation? Let us know!

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