New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: Emancipation

Emancipation Movies and Shakers December 1, 2022

We were apprehensive whether to screen this film or not. Is it too soon? But we’re film critics. We knew it would be a tough watch because of the brutal subject matter. But would be even more difficult watching Will Smith prove himself again as a potential Oscar-worthy actor after the infamous slap of Chris Rock at the 2022 Academy Awards. Can Smith’s performance, as committed as it is, make us forget his huge lapse in judgement and character at the Oscars? We don’t equate seeing this movie with forgiving him.

The script came first, written by William N. Collage. When Director Antoine Fuqua read it, it hit his heart and soul and he wanted to direct it. It’s based on the life of a real slave’s agonizing fight for freedom during the Civil War in 1863. 

Writer Collage based the story on the famous photo of a former slave’s mutilated back, the result of excruciating whippings. That photo went viral around the world that showed the reality of the cruelty and inhumanity of the institution. Collage uses spare dialogue that’s stilted and relies more on facial closeups. The silence doesn’t always effectively expose the emotions. 

Will Smith is stoic, strong, and unyielding as the Haitian-born Peter who embraces his religion and love of family to keep going in the face of unrelenting pain and suffering. The close knit family bond is central to Peter’s character. His love and respect for his wife, Dodienne (Charmaline Bingwa) is shown as he slowly, tenderly washes her feet surrounded by their children. She is just as strong as Peter, as she shows later doing whatever it takes to keep her family together. 

These are strong Black men and women. He hides his emotion under the surface and shows very little in his face, except in the eyes which glow with rage when he looks at his oppressors. Dodienne and the children pick cotton. Peter with other male slaves of all ages are tasked with building railroad tracks which will bring cannons to the Confederate front lines. When slaves become “runners,” they’re tracked down and brought back for more punishment or death.

When Peter finally breaks free, we follow him running to maximum exhaustion through fields, woods, alligator-infested swamps, trying to cover his tracks while being chased. The meanest hunter of the bunch. Jim Fassel, (Ben Foster), relishes inflicting pain on the slaves for any or no reason. and when Peter takes off, Fassel with Harrington (Ronnie Green Blevins) and Howard (Steven Ogg) is hot on his trail with a pack of vicious dogs. There is nothing redeeming about any of these White men. 

It is horrifying and tension mounts as Fuqua goes back and forth between Peter’s desperate moves and Fassel’s determination to put this slave down. It’s frightening watching how close Peter comes to being mauled, eaten alive, or drowning during the do or die chase for a majority of this movie. 

Fuqua and cinematographer Robert Richardson carefully crafted the look of the film. It starts out looking almost black and white with a heavily desaturated texture. The first looks at Peter also have most of the color drained from his face. As his dash to freedom progresses, more dark green tint is introduced into the landscape as he ventures further into the swamp.

Sound design plays a large part in making the audience experience the swamp environment along with Peter. The sloshing sound of the mud and the water, along with the buzz of the insects are effective tools giving us a sense how uncomfortable it was for Peter.

Once Peter made it to the Union lines in Baton Rouge, he joined the Union Army. That when the famous photo of Peter’s mutilated back was taken and used by abolitionists as proof that slavery had to end. 

The battle scenes in the third act revert back to the almost colorless landscape of devastation and death. Only the large Stars and Stripes flag carried into battle is allowed to be shown in full color. Sound plays an important role again in the battle with the thud of the canon fire and the whiz of bullets flying past or splatting on impact.

The remainder of the film at over 2 hours could have had fewer scenes of prolonged brutality, gory glimpses of amputated limbs and even more of the war. The ending is belabored seems contrived putting a happy ending to Peter’s story. By the time the final title cards show us the last pieces of this history, we were more than ready for all this suffering to be over. Will Smith certainly worked hard acting under extremely tough conditions. While the subject is important and the Fuqua’s artistry is on full display, we don’t believe that this film and Smith’s performance, rank among the best of the year. 

Apple TV+      2 hours and 12 minutes          R

The post Emancipation first appeared on Movies and Shakers.

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