Emancipation: Another Review

Emancipation: Another Review

Emancipation: Another Review. By Shani Harris.

Will Smith stars in Emancipation as a Black slave who was famously known around the country as “whipped Peter” after he went viral. The horrific image of Peter’s whipped and keloid scarred back during a medical examination became a symbol of the atrocities of slavery and rallying cry in support of the Abolitionist movement in the North. The historic portrait was taken by William McPherson and J. Oliver was called “The Scourged Back”. The picture was published in Harper’s Magazine and sparked backlash after it circulated worldwide. It has been documented that Gordon aka Peter confessed that he had been brutally beaten by a plantation overseer and whipped into a coma that left him bed ridden for months.

The title of the film is based on the Emancipation Proclamation which President Abraham Lincoln signed in 1893 ordering that slaves were free. The goal of the film is to focus on how it inspired this true story of an enslaved man who fled to freedom. It is produced by Smith and directed by legendary helmer Antoine Fuqua who collaborated with Denzel Washington for Training Day



Will Smith explained that his reason for taking the role was to delve deeper into the life of this man. “What interested me most was trying to understand the mind of Peter. How does a man maintain his humanity and grow in circumstances where most of us would crumble? What can give a
person the fortitude and endurance to overcome malevolence? For Peter, I felt it came down to the strength of his spiritual belief and that was something I wanted to explore.”

The audience is introduced to Peter during his life on a Louisiana plantation. He is a religious man who prays with his wife and children, while performing a spiritual libation ritual in their small shack. We see the tenderness of this family who belive in God and are doing their best to survive and stay together despite the shackles on their bodies. Marriage amongst slaves was illegal, because they were considered human chattel, who were put up for sale, abused and auctioned off. It was also illegal for enslaved people to read or write, so it took longer for them to get the news that they were legally free. 

Oscar winner Will Smith had a daunting task to bring the audience along on his epic journey through these hardships. I had seen the shocking picture of Peter my whole life, but never knew his name or his story. I would compare Emancipation to historic films like Glory, 12 Years A Slave and Saving Private Ryan that are inspired by true events. These films depict the epic scope and scale of a period production. I recently spoke to director Steve McQueen about his film 12 Years A Slave, which he explained instantly sold over a million dvds due to the interest in the subject matter based on the memoirs of  former slave Solomon Northrup. Emancipation makes that same impact with creating a first person experience about the cruelty of being enslaved. 

Smith adds a depth and insight into the soul of an individual in bondage who will do whatever he can to escape and protect his family. The very first image you see in the film is of Peter and his family,” Fuqua explains. “From that point on, the heartbeat of the film is always his need to get back to those he loves. When you’re telling such a vast story, mixing elements of history, emotion, and adventure, the key is to know where you’re going. No matter what, I always knew Peter was trying to get home. That drove us both.”

Newcomer Charmaine Bingwa portrays Peter’s steadfast wife who remains on the planation after he is sold and taken away. Peter is forced to work on building a railroad for a Confederate army labor camp, where he witnesses abuse at the hands of white overseers on the site. One enslaved man drops dead from exhaustion, while another is branded with a hot iron by a villanous slave catcher named Jim Fassle (Ben Foster). 

The barrier to the compound is surrounded by the decapitated heads of slaves who fled as an intimidation tactic along with the swinging bodies of traitors wrapped around nooses.  One day Peter overhears a conversation that President Lincoln had declared a Proclamation freeing the slaves. Peter feels that this news gives him renewed hope for his future. He flees the camp and heads toward the dangerous Louisiana swamps with the ultimate goal of joining the Lincoln army to gain his freedom.  

Following Peter along on his path feels like a nightmare that is impossible to escape from as he rubs his body with onions and does anything he can to evade capture.  He even has to battle an alligator with the visual imagery harkoning back to an iconic quote from Muhammad Ali who Smith once portrayed.  The famous boxer once rhymed. “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” 

Peter overcomes many treacherous obstacles to become the hero of his own story with bounty hunters on his trail. This is more than a movie; it is a visually immersive history lesson that everyone should see to understand that reverberations from the ills of the past including the remnants of the confederacy, shall not shatter the present. 

Robert Richardson’s cinematography transports the audience back to that era to experience the emotions of a fugitive slave calling out the words, “I Am A Man” to a group of slave catchers, which is the rallying cry that inspired the modern day “Black Lives Matter Movement.”  Will Smith’s embodiment of the his character in Emancipation is a moving tribute to the life and legacy of an enslaved man that no one truly knew about until now. I was moved to tears watching this dramatic saga unfold like the pages of a visual history book and you will  too.

Grade: A

Emancipation is streaming now on Apple TV+


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Shani Harris is a New York City based critic, producer, filmmaker, journalist, photographer and writer. She has contributed to networks and publications such as CBS, Entertainment Tonight, MovieMaker, BlackFilm, The Root, OK Magazine and LIVID Magazine.