Movie Review: ‘Emancipation’

Greetings again from the darkness. Persistence. It’s the word used to describe “runners” by the man known for tracking the slaves who try to escape the abusive treatment and back-breaking work of plantations. However, the word can also be used to describe how the movie industry ‘persists’ in bringing us stories about how white slave owners created a brutal environment for black slaves. We really do get it. The history is awful and the treatment is inexcusable. It’s just difficult to understand how more movies are going to make any difference in what happened 150 years ago.

Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE was released in 2013 and won the Oscar for Best Picture. In that film, Solomon Northrup was a free man dragged into slavery. In this film, Peter (Oscar winner Will Smith, KING RICHARD) has never known freedom, but fights for it. Both are based on true stories, and the biggest difference is in the scripts. The first was a terrific script that established many characters and told a remarkable tale. This latest film focuses too much on action pieces (a specialty of director Antoine Fuqua, TRAINING DAY,2001), and really boils down to two distinct segments: a chase scene and a battlefield. While thrilling to watch, neither segment delivers anything near the emotional heft of McQueen’s movie.

Will Smith spent decades carefully cultivating an image of a nice guy playing characters that were easy to root for. All of that recently changed in the blink of a slap. This first role since that stunning on stage event seems designed to get his career and reputation back in line. Peter is a man-of-faith, a beloved family man, and a lifelong slave from Haiti. When he is separated from his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and kids in order to go build a railroad for the confederate army, he vows to return to them. Not long after, he overhears that President Lincoln has freed the slaves, and so he plans his escape. As a “runner”, he is tracked by Jim Fassell, played with the cold, steely eyes of Ben Foster. Foster is mostly relegated to riding a horse and following his dogs, but he does get one campfire scene to explain the racism he was born into.

The cat and mouse game of life and death between pursuer and runaway takes up more than half of the film’s run time, and most of it sloshes through the swamps of Louisiana. Snakes, gators, injuries, and the challenges of water all present obstacles for Peter to complete his journey to Baton Rouge, without being killed. The story (written by Bill Collage) has been drawn from the infamous “Whipped Peter” photo that was used to bring the atrocities of slavery to the masses, and has since appeared in many history books. It’s recreated here in a short scene, one that probably deserved a bit more screen time. As for the Civil War battlefield, it continues the fantastic work of cinematographer Robert Richardson, a three-time Oscar winner. In fact, the entire film is a work of visual art, filmed in what has the look of black and white, with only splashes of muted color for effect. For those seeking another film on slavery, you’d be hard pressed to find a better looking one than this. Just don’t expect it to dig deep for meaning.

The film will have a limited theatrical run and opens on AppleTV+ on December 9, 2022

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