In the past several years, there have been so many slave narrative films that audiences have been describing themselves as “slave fatigued.” Personally, I’m conflicted. We can’t stop the past from being repeated if we don’t acknowledge it in the first place. At the same time, it would be refreshing to see our stories on the big screen reflecting something other than this narrative. Not to mention that most of these films are directed mostly by white or European men – hardly ever African-American filmmakers. The exceptions are Barry Jenkins and now Antoine Fuqua with Emancipation.
Written by Bill Collage and directed by Fuqua, Emancipation focuses on Gordon aka “Whipped Peter,” an escaped slave from a Louisiana plantation, who posed of a photo in or about 185o after being whipped within an inch of his life. Faced with outwitting cold-blooded hunters and the unforgiving swamps of Louisiana, Peter is determined to continue on a torturous journey north to reunite with his family.
Will Smith, in his first role since taking the Oscar for King Richard, is quick to let audiences know this is NOT another slave narrative flick, but rather a film about freedom. I’m inclined to agree. Peter is on a journey of freedom from captivity mentally, physically and emotionally.
One scene that permeates my mind is where Peter is chained like a dog on his knees with a German Shephard barking just a few slight inches from his nose. Smith doesn’t blink or flinch – not one time. It’s a defining moment cinematically illustrating the resilience Smith wholeheartedly inhabits with every fiber of his being and how important it is when you have a Black man telling a Black man’s story.
Charmaine Bingwa as Peter’s dutifully, strong wife Dodienne is simply magic. There’s no doubt that this is only the beginning of a very exciting career budding for this young actress. Ben Foster is terrifying as Jim Fassel. So much so, that when he finally meets his demise the audience cheers with relief.
Produced by Apple TV +, Emancipation is the perfect tribute to a man who was not able to be celebrated in life, but whose integrity and lineage will be felt for many generations and decades to come.