As students, we’re taught about the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln signed in the 1800s. What we’re not taught is the effort it took those who were enslaved to free themselves. To this day, we’re still not introduced to the bold struggles the enslaved and their owners undertook to keep the hierarchy in place in the face of change. Antoine Fuqua’s “Emancipation” sets out to paint a record of one man’s effort to free himself from the chains that shackled him.
Featuring Will Smith in the lead role as Peter, with a screenplay from William N. Collage, we get a sense of the oppressive nature that permeated the Louisiana countryside in the 1860s, the men who wanted to keep their fortunes intact, against the men, women, and children who wanted to be freed.
Peter is intelligent, more competent than his captors realize, and aggressive in his desire to capitalize on Lincoln’s newly promised freedom. Peter is also observant when he hears two minders talking about the proclamation. Under the overtly watchful eye of one Fassel, played by Ben Foster, the two minders threaten Peter and his co-enslaved to keep working on a rail line.
It is during these early frames of “Emancipation” that Smith and Fuqua shine. Rarely have I seen Smith appear as resolute in a character as he is here. The story instead turns into an action piece, as Peter frees himself and other men, bound for Baton Rouge, where the army loyal to Lincoln awaits them.
Fuqua chooses to turn a manhunt into an action-adventure film, going against the work Smith does in portraying Peter. Foster actually shines in these moments in a dangerous, edgy way that ultimately doesn’t fit the picture.
As another critic mentioned, it was the alligator that got me.
More than that, though, is the use of cinematography. Robert Richardson (“Platoon,” “A Few Good Men”) shot the film and desaturated the images, injecting moments of color. During the dramatic scenes that bookend the film, the desaturated look works in the film’s favor, which would have factored into a nomination for this effort. It visually depicts an unexpected equality between the two sides, giving neither an advantage and allowing Smith and Foster to shine equally. As the tone shifts, so too does the image with diminishing returns. Smith’s performance was strong enough that “Emancipation” is less effective for its ongoing desaturated look.
“Emancipation” cannot free itself from the bonds that hold it back as it struggles to conclude – there’s too much on its mind and not enough room to say it all. Yes, it offers hope where none existed. It is feeling and flawed, as humans are wont to be. Smith and Foster embolden those feelings. The tonal shift tugs and pulls when it really shouldn’t. Fuqua would have been better served had the production committed to being a dramatic or action-adventure piece, but not both. And with that, its bold strides fade into the monochromatic images on the screen and posterity.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Written by William N. Collage
Starring Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa
R, 132 minutes, Apple Original Films