‘Emancipation’ a decent action film that could have been so much more
Will Smith sticks to Movie Star mode as a family man dodging hunters, bullets, a gator and a snake while fleeing slavery.
We reach full overkill in the historical action epic “Emancipation” when an alligator rises up and pulls Will Smith’s Peter into the swamp, igniting a monumental battle in which Peter uses a small knife to stab the alligator again and again and again, ultimately killing the great beast and living to fight another day.
At that point, it becomes clear director Antoine Fuqua, screenwriter William N. Collage and Smith are more interested in delivering a thriller that plays like an 1863 version of “The Fugitive” than in delving too deep into the particulars of the real-life man who became a worldwide symbol of the horrors of slavery when photos of the monstrous keloid scarring of his back from repeated whippings were circulated around the world.
Although “Emancipation” contains certain basic elements from the real-life Peter’s story, including his escape, his use of onions to throw off the bloodhounds chasing him and his eventual enlistment in the Union Army, the great majority of the film is devoted to Peter battling the unforgiving swamps and forestlands, fending off the aforementioned alligator as well as a snake, dodging bullets, hiding in a tree trunk, coming up with ingenious ways to find food and water — and trying to say one step ahead of the relentless slave hunter (Ben Foster), who comes across as more determined than Lt. Gerard and more obsessed than Javert from “Les Mis.” It’s a well-made film with some admittedly exciting action sequences, but even after 2 hours and 12 minutes, it feels as we’ve just skimmed the surface of this important piece of American history.
Apple presents a film directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by William N. Collage. Rated R (for strong racial violence, disturbing images and language). Running time: 132 minutes. Opens Friday at Marcus Cinema in Country Club Hills and begins streaming Dec. 9 on Apple TV+.
With director Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) and cinematographer Robert Richardson employing a desaturated technique that veers close to black-and-white, with occasional, attention-getting pops of color, e.g., drops of blood falling on a leaf, or yellow flames licking a plantation from every side, “Emancipation” begins with Peter, his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa in a moving performance) and their children huddled in prayer. With Peter and his wife occasionally speaking in their native Haitian French Creole language, it’s immediately established Peter is a man of great faith (his belief in God remains unwavering, no matter what level of hell he endures while on Earth) and Peter and Dodienne have an abiding love for one another and for their children. They are a beautiful family trapped in the ugliest, most horrific of circumstances — and it somehow gets even worse when Peter is separated from his family and put to work in a slave encampment, building a railroad for the Confederate Army.
Time and again, Peter is subjected to brutal beatings and inhumane abuse by a series of snarling, drooling animals, e.g., Steven Ogg’s Sgt. Howard, who is itching for an excuse to put a bullet in Peter’s head. On the sidelines lurks the most efficiently ruthless, cunning and racist beast of them all; Ben Foster’s Fassel, who calmly smokes a small pipe while tending to his huge bloodhounds and telling Peter the only God in Peter’s life is Fassel himself. When Peter takes the opportunity to escape, Fassel can’t contain his enthusiasm as he rounds up his men and his dogs. This is what Fassel lives for — the chase, and the torture, and the kill. (Foster is a great actor and he is given one memorable speech in which Fassel tells a chilling story from his youth, but other than that, it’s a one-dimensional role. Fassel is simply a hate machine pursuing Peter.)
With an abundance of overhead, drone-type shots tracking the action, Peter relies on his intelligence, his survival instincts and his faith as he slogs through swamps, climbs trees, hides underwater and employs various clever techniques to throw Fassel and his men and those unrelenting dogs off his tracks, all in the name of somehow making it to a Union Army camp in Baton Rouge, finding his freedom and reuniting with his family. (Peter often says the name “Lincoln” as a kind of mantra, as if the president will be there to greet him when he arrives.)
We occasionally catch up with Dodienne and the children, and there are a few moments when Peter has prayer-like visions of reuniting with his family, but “Emancipation” is mostly about Peter’s incredible resolve and fortitude, as he narrowly escapes what appears to be certain death more than once and indeed does make it to that Union camp, with the great assistance of the all-Black 1st Louisiana Native Guard. Even then, though, we remain in action-film mode, with Smith delivering more of a big, Movie Star performance than a grounded work of acting. It seems like only a matter of days before Peter has recovered from multiple serious injuries and, while only a newly inducted private, takes a major role in a key battle that could swing the fate of the South. (Cue the shot of Will Smith roaring as the smoke clears and he leads the charge into the thick of battle.)
Despite the undeniable importance of this story and the obvious passion of those involved in telling it, “Emancipation” is more than anything a relatively standard-issue, period-piece action film — and that’s a shame, because we see glimpses of how it could have been something much more than that.