In the new film by Antoine Fuqua the title “Emancipation” hovers over everything. For long stretches, the promise contained in this word almost seems like irony or even like one of the many atrocities that the film demands. “Emancipation” tells of the fate of slave Peter (Will Smith) and his struggle for freedom during the US Civil War. In the 1860s, conditions in the USA were on the tipping point. Abraham Lincoln’s troops are about to conquer the southern states. The fall of the Confederates will also end the vile chapter of slavery in the United States. But not without an agonizingly long process of change across the country.
Peter and his family from Haiti do not yet feel anything of this historical change. In the state of Louisiana, he, his wife and their two young daughters are in the bondage of cruel slave owners. One day, Peter is abducted to a new place of forced labor – to build tracks for the railway company. His family is left without him. The only thing Peter draws hope from is his belief in God. He doesn’t leave him even when his fellow prisoners ask him how he can still seriously believe in God in the face of the horrors he experiences every day.
A confrontation with the brutality of racism
Antoine Fuqua does not omit any of these atrocities in his portrayal. Whips, shattered limbs, burn marks, all in quick succession. The frequency of the scenes almost inevitably leads to a distance, because the historical reality of what is happening is almost unbearable. However, Fuqua conveys that such a confrontation is necessary for US society. For too long there was an embellished image of that time, even in old Hollywood films with their perverse plantation kitsch. Fuqua wants nothing to do with southern gentlemen and lovely white beauties who are generous towards black slaves. “Emancipation” is not one of those reconciliation vehicles that Hollywood still uses today with feel-good films like “The Green Book“ brings out.
The first white people who don’t all act like devils towards Peter are the two photographers who take the picture that documents his body, which has been lacerated by the lashes of the whip, for posterity. This iconic shot really exists; as a historical testimony it was alternatively called “Whipped Peter‘ and ‘Escaped Slave Gordon’ famous.
For the screenwriter William N. Collage the photo was the starting point for a narrative, which is mainly due to the striking visuality of the cameraman Robert Richardson remains in memory. Richardson immerses the action in razor-sharp images in a color palette reduced almost to black and white. Only very gently does the shimmering green of the Louisiana swamp landscape become visible, through which Peter finally escapes from his slave owners. At his heels is a particularly obnoxious fellow named Fassel (Ben Foster) who makes fun of death games. He becomes the protagonist’s ultimate adversary in a world where only punches, slashes and bullets are left for him.
The promise of freedom
The freedom as a rumor that the refugees whisper to each other is enough for Peter to keep going. The approaching noise of battle from Lincoln’s troops acts as an incentive. Action filmmaker Fuqua, best known for films like “Training Day“ and “The Equalizer“ became known, the tonality of the drama does not always get a grip, for example in a scene in which Peter is attacked by an alligator. The wrestling with the cattle in the swamp seems oddly out of place, almost like something out of a monster movie. Other scenes, on the other hand, are extremely fitting. For example, when a white girl spots the fleeing Peter from the porch of a southern mansion. “Runners! Runner!” she yells, barking the way for the minions. It’s a hair-raising sequence that burns into your memory. On the other hand, those liberation images of black soldiers of the Louisiana Native Guard, which finally bring freedom to the workers of the cotton plantations, generate tremendous positive resonance.
The racist conditions live on
But “Emancipation” doesn’t gloss over the conditions in the northern states during the time of the Civil War either. Many of the young black soldiers are wasted in trench warfare, and racist conditions live on in social structures, even if cultural practice changes. It’s all an uncomfortable narrative.
The way the country tells a story of itself is changing rapidly at the moment. This can be seen in Hollywood films like those of Antoine Fuqua read off. For the main character Will Smith the role of the slave Peter is a very big one in his career. At the moment when the film’s eponymous promise seems to be fulfilled, you can see from his facial features what a physical and mental toll the role must have taken on him.