Emancipation review – Will Smith escapes from slavery in fierce, dark thriller | Film

WWhatever his current travails, Will Smith brings a movie star quality to this brutally violent Civil War drama, with a physical stillness and a defiantly steady gaze. It is inspired by the true story of “Whipped Peter,” the escaped slave who, in 1863, after enlisting in a Union military camp in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, showed his horribly scarred body back to two civilian photographers there, shockingly disfigured with a grid of raised patches and whip marks. The resulting photograph became an iconic abolitionist image: evidence of the savagery and Peter’s own heroic dignity and composure.

Smith’s Peter is not shown being flogged in this way, but it is clear that he, like all enslaved people, has been subject to systematic cruelty, a type of racist violence that is not a distinctly punitive incident but a continuous fact of life. , a condition of existence. The violence is embedded in the language used as the owners have a nasty way of referring to the slaves as “it”. The film imagines Peter to be married to Dodienne (a fierce performance from Charmaine Bingwa), with whom he speaks French dialect, but is separated from his wife and children when he is bought by another owner and brutally put to work on the Southern Railway and military fortifications. Like most of the film, this chaotic camp is shot in a bleached-out near-monochrome, with flashes of flame picked out in color: a visual approach perhaps borrowed from Schindler’s List.

Peter is electrified by the news that Lincoln’s soldiers are freeing slaves in Baton Rouge, across the swamp, and the nervous, trigger-happy white overseers, already nervous about the enemy’s advance, are terrified that this rumor will unruly their slaves. Peter escapes across the swamp with slave masters in pursuit on horseback and with dogs, led by an unflappable, pipe-smoking man called Fassel (coolly played by Ben Foster), a familiar figure in this type of tale. (Joel Edgerton played a similar slave hunter in the recent TV adaptation of The Underground Railroad, and like him, Fassel employs a black man, much to Peter’s disgust.) Peter faces a grueling ordeal in the gator-infested swamp, but there is no guarantee that the commanders in the Union army will be less high-handed.

The film creates for Peter an absent family that will provide the search narrative and also a stubbornly strong Christian faith, which he may have acquired in the United States (he is said to have been born in Haiti). Director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Bill Collage are reasonably careful with this religion and are not tempted to equate Peter’s scars with Christ’s scourging; instead, they create a quietly powerful, quiet moment as Peter, alone on a crude rowboat that he has taken, looks out over the sunlit landscape. It obviously looks beautiful to him, but is shot so austerely that the beauty is restrained. Does Peter have an epiphany? Is he lost in thought? The scene is left unexplained and inexplicable.

Elsewhere, the film works very effectively as a thriller, with Peter on the run from his pursuers. There’s a big moment when he stumbles into a burning plantation left in surreal ruin; running into the house in search of food, he catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror, apparently for the first time in a long time, or perhaps the first time in his adult life. Is he struck by how careful he looks? Or just by the strange fact of his own existence and survival? Again, it’s a mystery.

Perhaps the final showdown with the hated Fassel is anticlimactic, given that it must come before the third act of Peter’s enlistment, but this is a strong, fierce, heartfelt film.

Emancipation is released on December 9 on Apple TV+.

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