In ‘Emancipation,’ Will Smith Brings Intensity to the Perilous Journey of an Escaped Slave

The true story that inspired “Emancipation” is surely worth telling. Gordon was an escaped slave who became famously known as “Whipped Peter,” after a photo was taken in 1863 of his scarred back, displaying for countless viewers the true horror of the institution that had taken his freedom before the Emancipation Proclamation. Director Antoine Fuqua opts instead for a brutal chase movie that has the scale of a prestige drama screaming, “please nominate me for an Oscar!” It already arrives loaded with controversy unrelated to the plot because of its lead, Will Smith, now infamous for the slap heard around the world at this year’s Academy Awards. Had that incident not occurred, attention would go more to how Smith works overtime to deliver in a movie that tries to be vital but limits itself to being exhausting.

An opening title card informs us that the Civil War is raging and Abraham Lincoln has declared all slaves are free, yet such news was purposefully kept from those still in bondage behind Confederate lines. A slave named Peter (Smith) is forcibly separated from his wife and children on a Louisiana plantation to go work building a Confederate rail line to transport weapons. It’s a brutal, inhuman environment. Soon, Peter overhears the white overseers complaining about the news that Lincoln has freed the slaves. Propelled by this news, Peter begins resisting the demands of the slavers, including the cynical and cruel Jim Fassel (Ben Foster). A group of slaves led by Peter, soon enough revolt and flee into the swampy forests. Their aim is to try and reach Baton Rouge where they can join Union troops. But getting there will prove to be a terrible ordeal against the elements and vicious slave hunters.

With so much reckoning occurring culturally in the U.S., forcing us to stop the continuing amnesia of the country’s history, it’s admirable on one level that “Emancipation” gets made with the backing of a major company like Apple. Fuqua has always been a great visual stylist and here he re-creates with brutal clarity life in Civil War America, showing the barbarism of slavery in all its violence and terror. Master cinematographer Robert Richardson, famous for his work with Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, drains the palette of color, creating a rich yet cold ambiance. Fuqua never spares the audience moments that get across the very feeling of bondage. Sequences make the Confederate South look truly hellish, with panning shots of the heads of runaway slaves on pikes along roads. Fassel taunts Peter by letting his vicious dog bark close to his face, as he is kept tied. Men are branded and when a slave drops dead, the one next to him is expected to dispose of the body. Such moments rival films like “12 Years a Slave.” What’s missing is the richer narrative of that movie where another historical figure, Solomon Northup, is allowed to grow and develop as an individual through his searing experiences.

All controversy aside, Will Smith gives his all as Peter, but on a one note basis. He is playing the character with intensity yet as more of an action persona. Fuqua himself has rarely been known for subtle dramas, with action-heavy titles like “Training Day,” “The Replacement Killers” and “The Magnificent Seven” to his name. His skill for that genre is on display here in visceral moments where Peter battles alligators, fights with racist hunters and learns how to survive in the woods. Individual sequences do have power, like a chilling moment where a young white girl dining with her Southern aristocratic family notices Peter getting some water nearby and alerts everyone to a “runner.” The grand culmination of the movie is a blood-soaked, astounding battle sequence where Peter, having now joined the Union army’s Black regiment, marches into a combat zone where cannonballs destroy men and soldiers lie on the ground, dying while holding their intestines. Mustafa Shakir “The Deuce” and “Cowboy Bebop” gives a magnanimous performance as Lt. Andrew Cailloux, who inspires the troops with speeches reminding them that for them, this war is about freedom.

Such moments stand out in what otherwise amounts to a semi-thriller. Most of the middle of the movie is just Peter enduring the trials of the woods while Fassel and his goons roam around, kill other innocent runaway slaves they find and give one liners explaining what we already know, that their minds have been turned into a racist stew by the system that has raised them. But who was Peter? We learn in scenes where Smith does his best, teary and tense expressions, that Peter was Haitian. The moment where the famous picture of his scarred backside, showing a long history of being whipped by his various owners, is memorable, but never leads to any true dramatization of a man who lived extraordinary times. It must be said the performance almost seems designed specifically for Oscar season, at least in the way it expects us to applaud the sheer physical effort of Smith and not any bold imagining of this character by the film. Scenes with Peter’s wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), are so fleeting she feels like another one of those wives left waiting offscreen for most of your average action adventure.

The skill of Fuqua and his team are on full display in “Emancipation,” and there is more than one scene that’s memorable. But as an important historical figure whose image has come to define the experience of slavery in America, Peter deserves a bit more than just high-octane action. We can still respect the movie for being made, because such history remains ever so important. When it works it conveys how it must have felt to be running away from horror and seeking freedom. Shocking images in this movie should work as reminders of  a time we like to discuss as a society, yet forget just how insanely barbarous America’s slave-owning society functioned. But in showing the horrors, what brings across the need for reckoning even more strongly is getting to understand with the tools of drama, the human lives that lived them. “Emancipation” is thus a strong effort that only leaves us wanting to know more.

Emancipation” releases Dec. 2 in select theaters and begins streaming Dec. 9 on Apple TV+.