Among the earliest examples of a photograph’s ability to engender empathy and inspire social improvement in America, 1863’s “The Scourged Back” remains an indelible image in our nation’s history. Abolitionist movements rallied around the photograph, which features a Black man seated with his back toward the camera. It offers a full view of the raised, knotty remnants of the man’s whipping at the hands of slave owners — whom he escaped, and outran all the way to Baton Rouge, upon learning of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Known as “Whipped Peter” or “Gordon,” the man was one of 350,000 slaves in Louisiana alone who could have waited indefinitely for the Union army to arrive or seize freedom for himself. His picture’s power stems not only from the vivid vestiges of violence visited upon him but also his seemingly indifferent countenance. For him, degradation became an expectation as certain as a sun’s rise and fall. He resigned himself to aggression and abuse as the cost of drawing breath.
In that moment, “The Scourged Back’s” combination of the visceral and the sorrowful is what compelled activists to action. The ensuing 159 years have seen numerous images, still and moving, that excavate the evils of American slavery and its essential reminder that something so deeply engrained in our nation’s DNA can never be truly vanquished. Through its dramatization of the path that led Peter (so named here) to that photograph, director Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation seems primarily concerned with representing the most expensive such example. Despite Will Smith’s persuasive performance as Peter, the film flattens and homogenizes any meaningful sense of this man beyond a symbol for change and, for its creators, a chase for awards credentials — often hurtling headlong to its next pricey, drone-assisted action setpiece. (The film begins streaming Friday on Apple TV+ and will also open in select theatres.)
Early on, cinematographer Robert Richardson’s airborne aesthetic is complemented by an over-shoulder Son of Saul approach to the atrocities of slavery. Richardson also effectively establishes the hell-belched business of human bondage — illustrating it as an embedded economic system rather than a cruel individual whim so easily undone by presidential decree. It’s also an impressive strafe of technical credits that are above reproach in rendering a southern-states Eden befouled and beset by violence; there is excellent work here from the team of production designer Naomi Shohan, art directors Anne Costa, Tom Frohling and Shamim Selfzadeh, and set decorators Cassie Catalanotto and Cynthia La Jeunesse.
Unfortunately, their clear vision of hell on Earth is spoiled by the myopia of screenwriter William N. Collage (Assassin’s Creed, Exodus: Gods and Kings). Collage’s script mostly dispenses with any character’s philosophy or internal life. Rather curiously, the deepest insight is given to the tracker on Peter’s tail, Jim Fassel (Ben Foster, who has also never, ever, ever played an embodiment of evil before), and the film’s not-quite-black-and-white color timing seems to bloom closest to real-world hues when this happens. That the moment unintentionally echoes a South Park episode where white folks lament minorities taking their jobs is even more unfortunate.
Across 132 minutes, and with an expressive, committed actor like Smith, you might expect Emancipation to explore Peter’s reconciliation of the violence he must perpetrate on his tormentors with his fealty to a peaceful God in whom he, and they, so fervently believe. Or perhaps the deep bond he shares with wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) that sustains them both after they’re separated on the whim of yet another sale and as he takes flight. Maybe even the conflict Peter feels between striking up a camaraderie with fellow Black men and women in Baton Rouge and the circumstance that it’s only happening because of even more conscription, this one sanctioned by the government promising him ostensible release. There are only the briefest hints of all of this, none more clumsily cast aside than with Dodienne, whose own gambit to save her family is equally dangerous but literally forgotten for an entire act. There are occasional non-English passages presented sans subtitles (at least on a digital screener provided for review) that speak a universal language of emotional longing between Peter and Dodienne. However, a lack of specifics lessens the oomph of whatever shared passage, prayer or promise binds them on diverging paths toward a shared destination of deliverance.
Smith does fine work in moments where Peter delivers remarks of dangerously defensive defiance, to a point where you can feel the racing-heart buildup such a man would feel. But Emancipation largely reduces Smith to a purely physical presence in 70 minutes of chase film and 35 minutes of war coda. It mostly feels like a project Smith took to hedge his bets on winning an Oscar for his work in last year’s King Richard and take a shot at a more relevant Revenant (right down to a gnarly attack from a digital apex predator that’s more goofy than gruesome). And given the dramatic potential of Peter’s real-life military campaign, Fuqua and Collage’s decision to just slap a Civil War mod on Hacksaw Ridge for the big finish feels flimsy.
Last year’s The Harder They Fall unfolded with similarly epic speculation on the exploits of real people but fused its momentum to meaning — historical and contemporary — in a superior fashion. The photograph on which Emancipation is based speaks far beyond the proverbial thousand words. The film basically speaks to the hundred-plus million spent to complete and acquire it.