Rated R. On Apple+ and at suburban theaters.
Will “Emancipation” redeem Will Smith after the slap seen around the world? No, but it is a terrific film in the mold of “12 Years a Slave.” That is to say that “Emancipation” is a no-holds-barred depiction of the evils and horrors of slavery, a subject that some people want to go away.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua (“The Equalizer 2”) and written by Bill Collage (“Assassin’s Creed”), “Emancipation” tells the 1863-set story of the defiant and much abused slave Peter (Smith), a tall and strong man desperate to hold his family together and survive anything presented to them. He and his wife Dodienne (a moving Charmaine Bingwa) are devout Christians, who believe that their God loves them. They have several similarly enslaved children.
While building a railroad and suffering terrible abuse from their white masters, Peter and several other slaves hear the news that Lincoln has freed the slaves and, given an opportunity, they flee their Louisiana encampment. They travel separately on foot, heading through what is presumably Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Swamp, hoping to reach Lincoln’s army in Baton Rouge, guided by the sound of “Lincoln’s cannons” and yearning to join the Union Army as Black soldiers. Peter is based on the real slave whose photograph, displaying a whip-ravaged lattice of overlapping scar tissue on his back, helped galvanize the abolitionist movement during the war. Smith displays bravery and cunning in his attempt to escape through waters teeming with bugs, alligators and poisonous snakes. On his trail is the fearsome Jim Fassel (Ben Foster of “Leave No Trace,” wearing a false nose), a relentless tracker with ferocious dogs, who is known to capture Black “runners” and bring them back to be beheaded as a warning to others.
“Emancipation” is a chase film with Fassel as the slaver Inspector Javert and Peter as the fleeing slave Jean Valjean. Yes, Fassel and his cruel sidekicks are “hiss-able” villains in the vein of Simon Legree of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” infamy. Fassel has sworn to make Peter his “dog.” One of the runners had his face horribly branded when he was captured after an earlier attempt. Peter is armed with a knife that he uses to kill an alligator and cauterize a wound. He collects honey from a beehive and runs through a mangrove forest. The film was reportedly a tough shoot with Smith and the other actors exposed to real danger on location, and it shows. We are reminded how slave owners stole the identities of their slaves, renaming them, refusing to educate them or allow them to speak their native language.
“Emancipation” is listed as a color production on IMDB. But it is so desaturated that it looks black & white. Peter stumbles upon a mansion in flames full of dead bodies and a single slave child on the verge of death, whom he tries to comfort. Peter’s flight grows increasingly nightmarish in the style of Sam Mendes’ fine 2019 WWI film “1917.” In the third act, “Emancipation” becomes a Civil War film with escaped slaves inducted into the Union Army finding new horrors on the battlefield. The battle scenes are realistic, and that is to say terrifying. Soldiers are ordered to march into incoming fire with dreadful results. We see a medical camp where patients have limbs amputated without anesthesia. Trading the horrors of slavery for the nightmare of war is jarring. But it gives “Emancipation” a power few films can claim, making one of director Fuqua’s best ever. Smith gives Peter a determination arguably even stronger than he gave Richard Williams in his Academy Award-winning performance in “King Richard” (2021). Will it help the world to forgive Smith for his behavior? Time will tell.
(“Emancipation” contains scenes of terrible abuse, gruesome images and profanity)