‘Emancipation’ Review: Will Smith Slavery Saga Challenges Audiences With Grueling Cruelty

The script focuses on the physical and spiritual brutality endured by Smith’s real-life character without addressing the man’s actual humanity

Could a broader release have helped Apple TV+ movies like "Emancipation"?
Could a broader release have helped Apple TV+ movies like "Emancipation"?

If there’s anything unexpected about the depiction of slavery in director Antoine Fuqua’s “Emancipation,” it’s the unflinchingly grim imagery that populates its frames. The intent seems to derive from the photographs of the real-life subject who inspired the film: Gordon, or “Whipped Peter,” an escaped slave whose viciously scarred back was immortalized as a way to show the world the unspeakable horrors Black people faced in the United States.

For their part, Fuqua and screenwriter Bill Collage (“Assassin’s Creed”) feature severed heads, burning corpses and hanged men, among other hard-to-stomach acts of brutality, as well as casualties of combat, made only slightly less bluntly shocking by the phantasmagoric quality of the extreme desaturation of colors on screen. But for as much sense as the correlation between the aesthetic choices and the themes make, the visual statements on such dehumanization overpower most other narrative elements.   

The historical drama maps the grueling journey that Peter (Will Smith), a slave in Louisiana, undergoes to reach a semblance of liberty in 1863, the year that Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Unlike Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave,” Peter has never known freedom. Born a slave in Haiti, his only respite from the abominable treatment lies in his unwavering faith in the Christian God.  

Separated from his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa, “The Good Fight”) and his children to build a railroad for the Confederate Army, Peter waits for an opportunity to run away. “I will come back to you,” he tells his family not only in hopes of comforting them but also with the conviction of a promise he intends to keep. Soon, he and three other Black men capitalize on a moment of chaos to scurry into the swamps and travel to meet the Union soldiers in Baton Rouge.

Not only must Peter and his comrades hide from the human monsters that chase them relentlessly, but they must also fight the savagery of nature. Alligators, snakes, and even bees turn an already treacherous ordeal into a never-ending nightmare for these desperate men.

In what is likely one of his most physical demanding parts to date, Smith sweats and groans through an astoundingly visceral performance marked by exhaustion and pain. He repeatedly convinces us that such remarkable vigorousness comes from a spiritual fortitude that allows the character to go on even when his body wishes to surrender.

A role with limited dialogue, where the few lines spoken require a Haitian Creole accent, pushes Smith to convey the rage consuming Peter with a proud yet stoic expression. While eventually one catches on to the fact that the Oscar-winning actor’s turn doesn’t permit much modulation or for him to exhibit much range, he plays the role proficiently.

On his trail is Jim Fassel (Ben Foster), a typically malevolent racist raised with a poisoned white-supremacist mindset. A campfire story he tells about his father’s murderous ways is the extent of our engagement with him. Not that Collage or Fuqua needed to spend much time humanizing the villain, but despite Foster’s intensity, Jim remains a familiar caricature.

Beyond the desaturation, which at times tricks the eye into believing the picture exists in black-and-white or sepia tones, veteran cinematographer Robert Richardson mines the locations for their dangerously mystifying beauty. There’s a coarse elegance to how the mud, the murky water and the vegetation register through this nearly monochromatic palette, which call to mind “Vazante,” the Brazilian film on slavery by Daniela Thomas.

Near the end of Peter’s ongoing odyssey, as he encounters a different type of forced labor in the seemingly dignified duty of becoming a soldier, several war sequences let Fuqua flaunt his directorial abilities while Richardson focuses on fallen fighters and their wounds.

Yet what dampens the impact of “Emancipation” is the lack of an inner world for the hero outside of the survival mode that defines his great feat. No anecdotes of life in Haiti are told; no memories of his parents recalled; no tender recollections of how he became enamored with Dodienne are shared. In an effort to sear in our consciousness the heinous crimes perpetrated against Black individuals, the writer makes no room for Peter to fully exist.

One could blame the burden of accurately honoring reality for this. But since it’s likely that Collage took creative liberties in plenty of other aspects, considering the limited information available on Gordon’s life before and after the war, one has to wonder why he didn’t enrich Peter’s backstory. After all, fiction gives storytellers access to invent new entryways into history. Instead, Fuqua’s latest zeroes in on the suffering and unfolds as a series of gruesome trials that results in a simplistically satisfying, fictional ending.

As stark corroboration that this country was built on hatred and death, “Emancipation” successfully rattles you, but it can hardly be described as revelatory. Still, some could argue that today, as segments of society willfully wish to ignore the past and to prevent new generations from learning about it, a ruthlessly straightforward reminder is needed. For interested audiences watching the film on Apple TV+, enduring it might prove an uphill task.

“Emancipation” opens in US theaters Dec. 2 and premieres on Apple TV+ Dec. 9.