A treatise on the brutalities of slavery
In 1863, a widely-circulated photograph changed the course of the abolitionist movement in the United States. The photo, taken by McPherson and Oliver, and entitled “The Scourged Back,” depicts a former Louisiana slave named Gordon and known as “Whipped Peter.” A full display of the deep lacerations on Gordon’s back was meant to finally prove to the nation the brutalities of slavery–and it did.
The same motivation courses throughout Emancipation, director Antoine Fuqua’s slavery drama starring Will Smith. Based on the true story of Gordon’s escape and his service in the Union army, the film begins on the plantation of Captain Lyons, where Peter (Smith) is enslaved with his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and kids. When Peter is sold to the Confederate Army for railroad work, nothing can crush his resolve to reunite with his beloved family.
Word has spread that President Abraham Lincoln has freed the slaves in rebelling states, so Peter decides to escape to Baton Rouge in hopes of finding Lincoln’s army. He’ll face the dangerous swamps of Louisiana and the cruel chase of overseer Jim Fassel (Ben Foster) and his dogs–but keeps his eyes trained steadfast at the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel: freedom.
Like the picture of Gordon’s back, Peter’s more embellished story doesn’t shy away from the atrocities committed against Black slaves. But whereas “The Scourged Back” had a grandiose effect in changing the minds of those willfully ignorant of slavery’s true nature, in adapting photograph to screen, Emancipation feels exploitative in its repetitive barrage of human suffering. Of course, given the propensity of so many to forget history, it’s important to keep telling these narratives. But Emancipation does so with little emotional heart.
As beautiful as cinematographer Robert Richardson’s work is, there’s something off-putting in Peter’s story being one so breathtakingly cinematic. After Peter is sold to the Confederate Army, a rapidly moving tracking shot sweeps over the developing railroad to show the other enslaved men hard at work. It’s almost too-coordinated, too-postured. The grandiose camera work and the black-and-the white style (with the interesting addition of color grading) only reinforce that picturesque, fictive quality.
Ultimately, Emancipation’s focus is too wide and contrived. Similar to so many war stories, Fuqua turns a slave narrative into dramatic entertainment instead of focusing on the humanity within it. There are still pockets of truth and poignancy where the film decides to address deeper motivations of its characters–like how Fassel’s White supremacy is informed by his fear of Black people, or how Peter’s faith drives him forward. But Bill Collage’s script doesn’t dig deeper in these brief moments.
Smith’s performance is admirable, as he portrays Peter with a palpable, just-under-the-surface rage. In the end, however, he has little to work with. Fuqua and Collage had the opportunity to give the man from the famous picture a voice. To show who Peter might have been as a person, and not only display the suffering he experienced. And it slipped through their grasp.
In 1863, Gordon’s photograph was taken and circulated throughout the United States, and people took notice of his suffering. To bring back that photograph for modern society’s gaze requires an emotional intelligence–a purpose beyond suffering. Emancipation doesn’t quite hit that mark.
Read More: Emancipation Ending Explained
Verdict - 5.5/10