Fuqua’s Latest Historical Drama Is Gorgeous But Underbaked

Jan 31, 2023

Home Movie Reviews Emancipation Review: Fuqua’s Latest Historical Drama Is Gorgeous But Underbaked

While Emancipation contains beautiful cinematography amidst brutalities of oppression, it conveys very little about the man who should easily inspire.

It feels as if there’s always a new story to tell about slavery. That’s partly because these stories have been buried in history for so long. The Equalizer director Antoine Fuqua and Academy Award winner Will Smith partner together to bring the infamous story of Gordon’s “scourged back” photo to the big screen. The picture was one of the most circulated of the abolitionist movement during the American Civil War to showcase the atrocities of slavery to nonbelievers. Written by William N. Collage and directed by Fuqua, the story capture’s one man’s wit and determination for freedom. And while Emancipation contains beautiful cinematography amidst brutalities of oppression, it conveys very little about the man who should easily inspire the world.

Will Smith stars as Peter (named Gordon in real life), a former slave who escapes a Louisiana plantation to join the Union Army to fight for his freedom. Relying heavily on his wits, his deep love to be reunited with his family, and sincere faith in God, Peter endures the harsh swamps to evade the cold-blooded hunters nearing his path. The film is inspired by the 1863 photographs of “Whipped Peter,” taken during a Union Army medical examination, that first appeared in Harper’s Weekly. The image, frequently referred to as “The Scourged Back,” shows Peter’s bare back thoroughly scarred by a whipping delivered by his enslavers, which ultimately contributed to the growing opposition to slavery during the Civil War.

Related: Emancipation Trailer: First Look At Will Smith’s Emotional Slavery Drama

Fuqua’s latest film captures Peter’s relentless pursuit of freedom and desire to be reunited with his beloved family. Throughout his journey, Fuqua doesn’t shy away from incorporating horrifying imageries of slavery (the film is satiated with decapitated heads, mutilated limbs, and piles of bodies), but they never become too difficult to watch or fall into the torture porn category. Perhaps in this day and age, viewers are used to this type of violence depicted onscreen, so it could be the desensitization factor coming into play. However, the better explanation is simply because Fuqua directs a well-made film that seizes the opportunity to display the full truth.

While Emancipation boasts strong technical achievements, like Fuqua’s direction and Robert Richardson’s cinematography, there are plenty of unfortunate issues. Though it’s depicted as a historical drama, there are too many added elements of tired Hollywood tropes that make the film feel like a dishonest interpretation of such occurrences. A one-on-one battle with an alligator, leading a victorious battle with seasoned soldiers as a rookie are examples of where the film takes liberties to dramatize. And as a result of not focusing on the man — the former slave whose desperation to survive and faith in God carried the weight of his burdens and propelled him to victory — audiences are left with scenes that will make one question the sincerity of the facts.

Will Smith in Emancipation

For a well-shot film that attempts to exemplify the importance of the man whose photo of his scourged back helped propel forward the abolitionist movement, it struggles to do so significantly. Additionally, the material isn’t adequate for the talent surrounding the project. Charmaine Bingwa, for example, plays Peter’s wife Dodienne. Her role is simply to exist as Peter’s inspiration for survival, and she is given very little else to do otherwise. Smith’s performance feels standard, with no true breakout moments to support the heaviness of the film’s content. Yet, it’s good enough to not divert from the brutality of the film’s setting, which is the slavery and the pursuit of freedom.

Ultimately, Emancipation never rises to a level of greatness of which it is capable. There are moments that tend to creep into that territory, such as the war scenes. However, as a whole, it is underbaked. Fuqua’s feature is certainly well-made with an excellent score to accompany the beautifully-edited action sequences. But from a narrative standpoint, it barely scratches the surface of the real Gordon’s importance in history. And unfortunately, the film doesn’t add anything new to the genre even when the very photo that inspired it is an important historical staple.

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Emancipation released in limited theaters December 2 and will be available to stream on AppleTV+ December 9. The film is 132 minutes long and rated R for disturbing images, strong racial violence, and language.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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