Among the many widely-circulated misconceptions about slavery in America is that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation officially ended the practice throughout the country. As has too often been seen throughout history, there are those who stand so firmly by their convictions that they wish to go down only with a fight, which in this case meant only freeing enslaved people when physically forced to do so. Emancipation presents a sobering look at one man’s arduous path to freedom, inspired by an unforgettable photograph.
Peter (Will Smith), who is frequently subjected to punishment by his masters for his refusal to be talked down to and watch others suffer, is one of the strongest workers on his Louisiana plantation. When he hears the news of Lincoln’s speech, he is spurred to run, aware that his masters have no intention of freeing him and determined to make it to where he believes the Union Army will be waiting. His journey is torturous, and throughout it all, what keeps him going is the knowledge that he will eventually be free and be able to reunite with his family.
The character of Peter is based on an iconic picture taken in 1863 of an escaped slave with a horrific amount of scarring on his back. Like the photograph of a mutilated Emmett Till that also figures into a powerful film this year, it shows the undeniable nature of horrific racism within America that many have historically sought to downplay. That’s the tone of Emancipation as a film, demonstrative of the tremendous potential for cruelty exhibited by those who exert dominance over a people they have declared to be inferior.
That imbalance of power is on full display in this film and how it is shot. Anyone who asks why enslaved people did not fight back and simply accepted their fate will have those questions answered by numerous stark, disturbing moments in this film. Peter only remains alive because of his physical fitness, and were he not considered an asset, he would surely have been killed instantly on many occasions for his perceived insolence. His pursuers, led by Jim (Ben Foster), still seek to crush his spirit by reminding him over and over that they hold all the power and can torment him simply for their own amusement.
There is an additional layer of condescension that comes from the supposed allies of the newly freed men. One commanding Union soldier meets Peter and deems the marks of many lashes on his back a sign of disobedience, as if his not complying with orders from slavemasters that the Union Army considers enemies somehow makes him unfit for military duty. He mistakes Peter’s devotion to his family and his ability to stand up for himself in impossible circumstances as weakness, and in the process demeans Peter in a bureaucratic way, symbolic of the institutionalism of racism and discrimination as a replacement for the newly illegal practice of slavery.
Three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson’s cinematography enhances the film’s effectiveness, trapping viewers in the vastness of the landscape that Peter must traverse in order to reach some semblance of safety. Antoine Fuqua, a filmmaker known for action films and thrillers, brings an urgency to Peter’s story that helps to ground audiences in the moment, unaware if he will survive every step of his ordeal. The film’s 133-minute runtime includes frequent pauses that serve as transitions as Peter reaches a new stage of his escape.
At the heart of this film is another wholly committed performance from Will Smith, in the vein of the transformation into Richard Williams in King Richard that won him an Oscar last year. Any conversation about Smith’s real-life behavior at the Oscars isn’t appropriate in connection with this film, which was filmed before that incident, since it would only serve to dilute an important film that in itself decries even necessary violence. Emancipation is an unflinching look at the human capacity for survival and perseverance in the face of viciousness from those who believe they are superior.
Emancipation is currently playing in theaters and debuts on Apple TV+ on Friday, December 9th.