Will Smith’s star vehicle Emancipation is many things.
First off, Emancipation is just that — a star vehicle. It’s a route back to the Oscars for an actor more on-the-outs with the public than he’s ever been over the course of his three decade-long career.
It’s a “based-on-true-events” story of an enslaved man — dubbed “Whipped Peter,” though most likely actually named Gordon — whose whip-scarred back was documented in a widely distributed 1800s photograph that helped turn Northern Americans more against the practice of slavery.
But it’s also a movie that might have had its most accurate review written 20 years ago, by a critic talking about an entirely different project.
“The filmmakers do their best to distract us, but eventually it becomes hard to ignore,” Jeff Strickler wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2001, “that Behind Enemy Lines is one long chase sequence.”
Comparing a slave narrative (stuffed with stylistic choices that seem to be aimed straight at award voters’ ballot cards) with an Owen Wilson-led action/adventure (that holds an average Rotten Tomatoes score below most direct-to-DVD releases) might seem unrelated, but it isn’t.
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The gritty past
First, the filmmaking. While Behind Enemy Lines used the classic blue/grey filter to key audiences into the fact the hostile territory their hero is running through is Eastern Europe, Emancipation slightly tweaked that formula. Director Antoine Fuqua instead opts for a de-saturated colour scheme a hair’s-breadth away from black-and-white to virtually yell that the movie takes place in a gritty past — one far less humane than our present.
And really, that’s the only revelation Emancipation has to offer about slavery in the 1860s South: it was horrible, disgusting and degrading.
We follow Smith as Peter as he witnesses and suffers through all the horrors associated with that time period. We see whippings. We see brandings. We see unnamed bodies dumped into a pit, covered in lye and burned. We see shootings. We see beatings. We see families ripped apart, and we see — in the middle of the frame, from an unwavering camera, without a cutaway — a man ripped apart by dogs.
All this happens as Smith’s often silent Peter stoically runs across Louisiana wetland — pursued by Ben Foster (Hell or High Water, Leave No Trace) as the equally impassive overseer and slave-catcher Jim Fassel.
The acting can’t be faulted here: Foster, Smith and notably Charmaine Bingwa, who plays Peter’s wife Dodienne, give grim and harrowing performances full of heartache and strife. Smith is even somewhat refreshing: instead of leaning on the charm and wit that got him famous, he strips away all artifice to embody a deeply religious man grappling with his faith in a society and culture set against him.
It’s a performance that, on the surface, is perfect to get him back in the good graces of fans and Oscars organizers after he infamously slapped Chris Rock at the ceremony earlier this year. It’s humble, stripped down and focused on the persecution of a self-possessed hero rallying against seemingly insurmountable odds — a recipe for success on the awards circuit.
But instead, Smith’s quiet acting job doesn’t belie anything under the movie’s surface. Like Behind Enemy Lines, Emancipation works like a clip show of distractions to keep you from the realization there’s not much being said. The overwhelming majority of the movie is spent following Peter as he runs toward freedom, turning him into little more than an avatar for the audience (like how Wilson leads audiences to and through explosions and shoot-outs) to witness torture and violence.
It’s a slog through the muck of history that revels in the “torture porn” side of cinema: originally a sub-genre of horror that now is more often used for narratives that dive headfirst into the worst events in history. Instead of offering insight, they shock viewers with uncensored depictions of trauma — that might just distract from their lack of depth, and the little they have to say.
In that sense, Emancipation rolls along with little-to-no character development, lots of finger-pointing barbarity, and a gaping hole where an original statement should be — aside from, maybe: “this is what Hell looks like.”
And while that take is in many ways accurate, it has already been said. First-person slave narratives — which almost unfailingly focus on an enslaved person trying to escape, all while either ignoring or implicitly looking down on those who didn’t attempt to do the same — like 12 Years a Slave, Antebellum, The Underground Railroad and even The Good Lord Bird have all already made the same statement, and made it recently.
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And even in other films that similarly look at the inhumanity bubbling under the surface of otherwise regular people (like squirm-inducing The Painted Bird, seminal anti-war film Come and See or the unrelentingly dour The Survivor, which swaps Foster in as the persecuted protagonist) their leads are given more space for internal growth that parallel the plot.
In The Painted Bird and Come and See, we follow young leads whose witnessing of (and interactions with) depravity mirrors their disillusionment and introduction to the cruelty of adulthood. In The Survivor, we see how a victim of the Holocaust doing anything to survive slowly strips away his humanity, giving him little to live for when it’s done.
Emancipation instead gives both its lead and its antagonist scattered moments to state out loud their motivations and conflicts — Smith’s Peter in a short debate about the merits of belief, Foster’s Fassel in a conversation about an enslaved girl he believes he foolishly treated with kindness as a child. Outside of that, it largely functions as a dark action — a style Fuqua (who directed The Equalizer, Olympus Has Fallen and Tears of the Sun) has more experience with.
Emancipation as an action
And in examining Emancipation as an action, it’s not half-bad. It is thrilling, it moves quickly and a lack of characterization in that space isn’t the death knell it would be elsewhere.
But looking at it in the context of a somehow burgeoning field of slave narratives, the lack of nuance feels not only lazy but exploitative. It is not enough to simply say slavery was bad, and hit audiences over the head with graphic scenes like it was the back of a cigarette box. Without something more, you do not have a good story.
That said, you do have a movie. And if Behind Enemy Lines — which went on to gross almost $100 million US and spawn three sequels despite the negative reviews — teaches us anything else, it’s that an action can find an audience regardless of its message.