William N. Collage was inspired to write “Emancipation” by a well-known, frequently seen photograph of a horribly disfigured former slave.
The picture, which is often referred to as “Escaped slave Gordon,’ also known as “Whipped Peter,” was published alongside an article on him in Harper’s Weekly in 1863 and is frequently called “The Scourged Back.”
The illustration of the photograph was accompanied by two images that were alleged of the same man, one of whom was depicted wearing ragged clothing and the other in a Union uniform.
This triptych creates a sort of fictional narrative arc that the movie has expanded on.
The promise of the title of the historical drama “Emancipation” feels tragically out of reach throughout much of the film.
For the Black Americans who are still held in slavery in the Old South in 1863, whether they are laboring on its plantations or escaping through its swamps, freedom appears almost unattainable.
The resilient hero of this film, however, has only that vow to hold onto as he travels mercilessly through a hellscape filled with dread and pain.
In “Emancipation,” there are no benevolent white belles and polite gentlemen, and there is no sign of the horrifying plantation dreams that old Hollywood so adored.
That is in line with the movie’s theme and goal, which is to illustrate the horrific cost that slavery imposes on people both individually and collectively.
While simultaneously being a very compelling, Hollywood-style action-fueled adventure, the film serves as an essential corrective to the popular, big-screen fiction about the American slave trade in this regard.
When Peter (Smith) gets removed from the vast Louisiana plantation where he works and lives with his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), their children, and numerous other enslaved people, the war has been going on for two years.
To the owner of the plantation’s dismay, Peter has been forcibly recruited to work for the rebel cause. After all, Peter is valuable property.
Peter is quickly enclosed on a horse-drawn cart with other enslaved men as they travel to a large camp to construct railroad tracks for the Confederacy after the family is abruptly and violently torn apart.
The filmmaker, Antoine Fuqua has established a respectable career with a series of powerful action films, most notably “Training Day.” For “Emancipation,” he brings his signature panache and bluntness.
Its portrayal of violence is swift, vivid, and unrelenting. Given its somber subject, the film is also, wisely, less aesthetically ornate than most of his works, even as its images speak more eloquently and strongly than any of its written words.
The movie is almost completely overshadowed by the heinous brutality of the sequences at the railroad camp. Peter is hauled in to aid the Confederate war machine in this situation, bound and without shoes.
He drags large chunks of timber through the muck with other men, wearing what looks like a harness for a plow. It’s a piercing, unpleasant detail that highlights the strenuous nature of Peter’s work.
More significantly, it conveys that these enslaved men are nothing more than animals of burden for their oppressors. Smith performs admirably both in this scene and in those that follow Peter’s escape, bringing emotion and intensity to a part that is regrettably devoid of depth and understanding.
It is extremely difficult to watch Peter’s time in the camp because “Emancipation” is unflinching in its depictions of deliberate and arbitrary sadism; in one scene, men are forced to work until they pass out, and then their bodies are thrown into a mass grave.
Its insistence that you confront slavery as a crime against humanity rather than the perverted fiction of the so-called Lost Cause that is immortalized in innumerable paintings, books, films, and statues is a big part of what gives this movie its impact.
While it can be agreed that the concepts and scenes are exciting, the movie in itself is flawed. There are too many overhead shots in this film, and one awful scene involving an alligator borders on exploitation-cinema ridiculousness.
Fuqua’s propensity for exaggeration also results in a lack of modulation in the film, which, among other things, limits Smith to only clenching his jaw and moving forward.
The image of the pretty little white girl pointing at Peter and yelling “runaway!” will undoubtedly linger with you.