Emancipation (2022)

“They break the bones in my body more times than I can count. But they never, never break me.”

About a quarter of the way through the muted colored Emancipation by director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter William N. Collage, the titular character is tasked with surviving uncompromising odds by any means as he makes his way southwest to freedom to Baton Rouge to meet Lincoln’s army. Through dense thickets and deep swamp water, Peter (Will Smith), the slave who would go on to be the face, or back of Slavery in the Civil War era south would transform into a John Rambo like savior to fellow slaves if he can just escape the slavers hunting him and the dangerous creatures that lurk beneath the surface.

During this survival mode section, Peter becomes injured, and somehow invincible, during the height of his frenzied escape. Add to that are 3 hounds hot on his scent despite covering himself in onions and mud, and 3 men, including Fassel (Ben Foster) one who regards himself as Peter’s god. Swamp water means danger – any number of apex predators wait for unsuspecting prey to wander into their territory.

Men like Peter will take that risk rather than going back into bondage – at least he would die a free man. It’s in this most dangerous game that Collage’s script loses all verisimilitude within the confines of Peter’s world. All he has on his person is a small, dingy knife and supplemented with Peter’s tough resolve, he can survive a crocodile attack, climb trees to great heights, injured and keep as still as a mouse as another runner is beheaded right in front of him.

Any story about survival, bravery and the human condition of resilience will likely inspire those who may have never heard the story but know the basic parameters. With several dramatized retellings involving slavery in the deep south, Emancipation isn’t reinventing the wheel or adding its own unique voice to an overstuffed genre. The same can be said about anti-war films, the overabundance of them takes away from the gut punch of the overall message – we’re desensitized to the horrors of slavery and discrimination toward the marginalized group.

Regardless, “Whipped” Peter’s story of bravery deserves its turn in the spotlight, even if it’s been told 100 times over.

Opening the film is a series of shots of the Louisiana landscape by veteran cinematographer Robert Richardson, beauty filling up every frame with the naturalness and quiet of the environment taking over to set the stage for the juxtaposed danger. Fast forward sometime later and the echoes of dogs barking fill the void, destroying any sense of peace for Peter, a constant reminder of what will happen if caught.

Coming off a well deserved best actor win for his performance as Richard Williams in King Richard, Will Smith gives a powerfully charged performance as Peter. Set during the height of the Civil War after President Lincoln frees all enslaved people with the 13th amendment, Peter is separated from his family, determined to find them again. Opposite Smith is Ben Foster as the prototypical racist slaver who does what he can with the role. Collage attempts to give complexity to Fassel with a forced monologue that doesn’t cause a spike in any sympathy for his character.  

At 132 minutes, Collage’s script looses some of its wind during the middle section – it’s one near death experience after the other, set on an endless loop of outrunning the slavers and their hounds. Peter being out of breath, starving and dehydrated the entire 5 day trek southwest is how we feel watching his journey, one scene after the next, waiting for the end to creep closer.

By the time Peter makes it to complete safety for a good 5 minutes, he’s exploited in a new way. The famed photo of Peter hunched over with his back to the camera to show off the damage done to his body is taken with no regard for Peter’s state of mind. He narrowly escaped being captured and now he’s sent off to be propaganda for the north to continue its purpose in expelling slavery.

Aside from Smith’s Peter, no other singular character will elicit an emotional response and as Peter, Smith’s talent as an actor to push himself to that point of instinctual survival barely crosses that line. Emancipation on the level of telling a story of resilience gets the job done however, the necessity to tell such a depressing fare isn’t worth the heartbreak for what happens to Peter.

Overall, Fuqua delivers an emotionally charged albeit empty calorie tale that conveys every emotional beat from bravery to love to faith and hope. Better served as an horror action hybrid flick where the hero saves the day and gets the girl, Emancipation suffers under the weight of its ambitions and expectations to tell a harrowing story. Trying too hard to be 12 Years a Slave the most each film has in common with one another is the subject matter.   

Screenplay By: William N. Collage

Directed By: Antoine Fuqua

Music By: Marcelo Zarvos

Cinematography: Robert Richardson

Starring: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Steven Ogg, Mustafa Shakir, Timothy Hutton

Where to Watch: Apple TV +

Release Date: December 9, 2022

Running Time: 2 Hours 12 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 45%

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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