Basically: A film based on the photograph of a man named Gordon, who suffered under enslavement and whose picture of his scarred back from past whippings publicized the cruelty of American chattel slavery. With added action for some reason.
Another year, another story about American slavery. Emancipation is from Will Smith and Antoine Fuqua and written by William N. Collage. It tries to tell the backstory of the man from the historic picture many of us have seen. Which is the conflict I have with this film. I don’t think it’s that good in the first place; however, it might also be that I’m finally getting tired of seeing stories about people of African descent suffering during the 19th century at the height of slavery. But with the way the US is going, I know that teaching this part of history in schools is sadly embattled. So many people don’t know much about this time—and some people are even trying to get rid of or change books about it—but I struggle with how these types of films carry an unfair burden.
What I’m saying is, Emancipation is a film, which means it doesn’t tell the whole truth. At best, it should make you want to do your own research and learn more about the reality of what happened. Until recently, a film like this could show how much the story was changed for the better onscreen and it would lead to talks about making it “Hollywood.” Now even if I don’t want or need to see it, it might still have a place.
Emancipation follows Peter (instead of Gordon), a Haitian man who is taken from the plantation he lives on with his family and conscripted to work for the confederate army building a train track. He is able to escape after hearing that President Lincoln had freed the enslaved people. Now he must journey to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to reach a safe harbor at the union army base there so he can return to his family as a free man.
Will Smith plays Peter and does a decent enough job with what he has. However, you can tell when he’s in his “Oscar performance” mode, which is distracting. Also, the look of Emancipation can be a bit much with its washed-out nature—the glaze of color is basically black and white at times. However, some great camera movements and sweeping crane shots will keep you interested.
Emancipation is very much like The Fugitive but set in the past with an enslaved person and slave catchers. It’s an action thriller more than anything else, which doesn’t work much for me. There’s a point in the film that pulled me out of the story because it goes against what Will Smith said about why he didn’t star in Django Unchained—he “didn’t want to make a slavery film about vengeance.” While the reasoning for being the “hero” is similar here, Emancipation ends in a similar way that left me scratching my head.
The film is also 20 minutes too long and could’ve ended without needing the addition of a whole war movie plot. The script doesn’t always hold up to the actors acting on the screen either. I wish I would’ve liked this more than I did.
In the End: Emancipation is a different type of historical slave movie but not different enough to really stand out and be interesting.