Emancipation (Action, Thriller) (2022)
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: Bill Collage
Stars: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Mustafa Shakir, Charmaine Bingwa
In the 1860s, after Abraham Lincoln abolishes slavery, a Haitian father in the Confederate States is forced to work on a railroad. Determined to free himself and his family, he flees from his captors in a gruelling footslog through the murky swamp.
Based liberally on the lives of former slaves, with a famous photograph exhibiting the outcome of an overseer’s whipping, Antoine Fuqua; known for films such as ‘’The Equalizer‘’ ‘’The Magnificent Seven‘’ and ‘’Training Day‘’. Shows an unconventional movie depicting the history of the enslaved people in America before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It has been filmed in New Orleans and produced by Apple Studios, Westbrook Studios, McFarland Entertainment and Escape Artists while being distributed on Apple TV+.
Separated from his family and transferred to a temporary camp somewhere in Louisiana, a Haitian man called Peter (Will Smith), a father forced into slavery, is ordered to work on a railroad meant to transport armaments. Treated inhumanely, often chained up and beaten, Peter mentions an emancipated America under President Abraham Lincoln and has vowed to return to his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and their children. Freeing himself from overseer Jim Fassel (Ben Foster), his belief in God and promises to his family motivate him to reach Baton Rouge and the army of the United States under President Lincoln.
As painful and harrowing as this American history is, Fuqua empowers his statement through an action-focused narrative with Smith’s Peter determined to defy his oppressors and unite himself and his family through any means.
Throughout cinematic history, films like ‘’12 Years a Slave’’ and ‘’Amistad’’ presented the hardships of this time-period realistically with features like ‘’Antebellum’’ and ‘’Django Unchained’’ while trying to be respectful, creating a diversion in genre, some more successful than others. ‘’Emancipation’’ lies somewhere in the middle, closer to the latter. It employs a faded, desaturated visual style, aiding a gritty, textured whole—void of much narrative.
Heroism is bolstered most within Fuqua’s feature, with defiance being a muffled undertone. With topics such as slavery during and before the American Civil War, it’s essential to respect the subject matter, and while I wouldn’t proclaim Fuqua, the straightforward action thriller he presents doesn’t carry the honest emotion behind the atrocities committed. While it could be inspiring to some, it unjustly becomes a tale of heroism rather than defiance against horrible odds. With Smith in the leading role, supported by Foster as the antagonist, others are regrettably underused and never even adequately developed; even just finding a bond with Smith’s Peter feels laborious. There are hard-hitting flashes, such as a scene where Peter runs past drying laundry and a young southern child distracted from her prayer yells ‘’runner’’ which will haunt my senses for some time, but there’s less than a handful of moments like that. If it weren’t for the performance and some actual narrative near the end, it probably wouldn’t have been able to pick itself back up within the overly extended running time.
While these films provide an important look into American History, I question where the line of necessity lies, and the same goes for any other movie showing historical events.
A painful journey through the Louisiana swamp, and not in a positive way.