The Pitch: “Then what?”
There’s a moment in Emancipation where the film establishes a modus operandi. A white man named Fassel (Ben Foster), while sitting with his two partners, explains the actual reason behind slavery’s cruelty and white supremacy. Coldly and bluntly, he tells a childhood story about the enslaved person who raised him like one of her own. They grew so tight that Fassel thought of her as a friend. When he asked his father if this woman might dine with the rest of the family, his old man balked at the idea and asked a simple question: “Then what?”
Slavery was never about “states’ rights” or the economy; it was about the fear ingrained in white supremacy. According to Fassel, first, it’s letting Black people eat their food. Then it’s granting a few of them freedom. And then the next thing you know, Black people will own their land and their states and foster enough power to repay their slavers in kind for years of injustice.
That’s an important scene in Antoine Fuqua‘s latest starring Will Smith as Peter, a man who escapes captivity after hearing about the Emancipation Proclamation. The uneven film shows Peter dodging bullets, dogs, alligators, and even an encounter with an angry beehive on his way to Baton Rouge. Once there, he finds freedom by joining the Union Army and going into battle.
The Meh: Emancipation is based on the story of “whipped Peter,” whose shocking photograph made waves throughout the country and helped turn public opinion against slavery. For most of Emancipation‘s runtime, Peter is just that photograph; a blank slate for atrocities and a stark reminder of America’s greatest sin. And the movie never returns to that moment around the campfire where it differentiated itself from the dozen or so slavery movies that came before it, instead giving way to run-of-the-mill situations and generic characters.
According to the film, the only thing we need to know about Peter, aside from the picture, is his intense devotion to his family and religion. This means Smith does much of the heavy lifting through a grueling two hours filled with pain and suffering. He pulls it off because he’s Will Smith, as do Foster and the rest of the cast. But there’s too much talent involved for a story where the only factor that truly sets it apart from the pack is the name at the top of the call sheet.
Fuqua’s direction is beautiful in moments and then weird in others. He films the physical and emotional violence with the same approach, impressing upon the viewer how deeply traumatic this period was for Black people: A slaver eyeing Peter’s young daughter is given just as much tension as a foot chase through swamps. And there are moments between the brutality where Fuqua’s camera captures the world through Peter’s eyes — despite his circumstances, Peter still finds wonder in everything around him and truly believes in the God he worships.
The Mixed: But then comes the weird. Peter gets dragged from his family in the first few minutes, and the fanciful way the family gets reintroduced puts it at odds with the rest of the flick’s stark realism. And when we finally see Peter take his famed picture, the whole reason the movie exists, the moment is unearned. Without knowing the true story behind the Hollywood account, that scene comes out of nowhere, has no meaning, and doesn’t evolve from anything preceding it. It’s a signpost the movie knows it must hit since — at least according to the script — it’s the only thing that differentiates Peter’s story from everyone else who escaped captivity and literally ran for their lives.
The Ugly Truth: In an era where Black audiences clamor for stories that don’t involve whips, chains, and blood-soaked leaves — which this film has by the bucket — Emancipation doesn’t justify its existence.
That’s not entirely the film’s fault, but timing is everything. Even a Will Smith pre-The Slap heard ’round the world fronting another slave movie is a tough sell. Some argue these stories need oxygen lest we forget — and they’re not entirely wrong, with book banning en vogue like our own Fahrenheit 451. But it’s hard watching Black bodies mutilated and tortured, yet again. It’s difficult watching dogs give chase through swamps and fields, yet again. And it’s hard stomaching the idea that people who look like me were, and in many cases still are, treated worse than animals while seen as less than human. Yet again.
The movie can’t help but drape uninspired tropes around its more exciting ideas, convinced that audiences prefer suffering and a contrived happy ending. Even when it touches on important issues that sadly ring true today, like Fassel’s monologue or questions about faith and religion in the Black community, it only flirts with these ideas.
That said, there’s something profound about watching this movie as America once again grapples with racism and White Supremacy goes mainstream. Emancipation wasn’t written by a Black man, but having one behind the camera allows his artistic stamp on the story: Fuqua, and Smith as a producer, express certain truths about Black and white relations that the media often ignores.
Even the film’s color palette serves as a commentary on the true nature of freedom, as it fluctuates based on Peter’s circumstances. The closer he gets to Baton Rouge, the brighter the film looks, but there’s never actual color in this world. Even as a free man, even as a soldier, Peter’s freedom goes so far in a country that enacted many restrictions on Black people following the Civil War.
The Verdict: Emancipation is a mixed affair. The film contains believable performances, but unfortunately, there’s little for anyone beyond what one might expect. While its bright moments don’t save the movie, they redeem some of its lesser qualities. Is this the best way to communicate the movie’s more significant points about the racism woven into America’s thin fabric? No. Even if this story doesn’t hold its weight, it contains several worthwhile themes and ideas. Emancipation is an average film searching for something better, but can’t figure out how to get there.
Where to Watch: Emancipation is in theaters now. It will be available for streaming on Apple TV+ starting Friday, December 9th.