Do Oscar voters want to condone the violence or stay whitelisted by bookmakers? Emancipation is inspired by “Whipped Peter,” an 1863 anti-slavery photograph that showed the world a man’s back covered in hideous welts and scars.
As the details of the runaway slave’s life remain sketchy, Fuqua has filled in the gaps with the tropes of a genre film.
Here, Smith plays Peter as a Haitian husband and father who escapes from a Confederate labor camp after learning that Abraham Lincoln’s soldiers are freeing slaves in the Baton Rouge swamps.
Like Schindler’s List, the film is shot in black and white with the occasional flash of color. And the hellish scenes in the labor camp suggest this is America’s Holocaust.
There are spiked heads, broken bodies piled in mass graves, and corpses hanging from trees.
For most of the film’s 132 minutes, this is a chase movie in which Peter is chased through the Tennessee swamps by the villainous supervisor Ben Foster. To survive, Peter has to rely on his wits, courage, and Christian faith.
Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen, The Magnificent Seven) delivers muscled action scenes with precision, though a sequence in which Peter turns into Tarzan to fight an alligator feels a bit at odds with the film’s stark cinematography.
Smith delivers an unusually unremarkable performance. He speaks with a convincing Haitian accent but, like that Oscar appearance, this is a physical performance rooted in defiance and an unflinching stare.
- Emancipation, Certified 15, on Apple TV+ now
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