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'Emancipation' review: 'Whipped Peter' film suffers from clumsy storytelling

  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Dec. 02, 2022 - 1:35 PM

'Emancipation' review: 'Whipped Peter' film suffers from clumsy storytelling


Review by Jonathan W. Hickman

Review Rating: 5/10

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Cast Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Steven Ogg, David Denman, Paul Ben-Victor, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Aaron Moten and Gilbert Owuor

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 2 hours, 12 minutes

Available in limited theatrical release followed by a streaming release on Apple TV+


“Emancipation” is a surprisingly bland film. The story of “Whipped Peter,” the subject of the provocative and influential “scourged back” photo, is undeniably essential and compelling. But for some reason, so much of this well-intended, vividly produced narrative feature about him is phlegmatic and unengaging.

Recent Oscar winner Will Smith plays Peter, a Civil War-era slave taken from his family and forced to work on a railroad for the Confederate army in Louisiana. He’s from Haiti, speaks English and French, and is deeply religious. As Peter is violently torn from his loved ones, he vows to return.

Life working on the railroad is horrific. Peter and his fellow indentured servants endure all manner of brutal injustices. And attempted escape is a death sentence.

Embedded in the Confederate camp is a vicious man-hunter named Jim Fassell (Ben Foster). Armed with what appears to be a lever-action Winchester (a very early model) and a pack of angry bloodhounds, Fassell tracks and disposes of runaway slaves. A striking image features heads on spikes; Fassell’s methods sow terror in the worst possible way. He’s judge, jury and … you get the picture.

We’ve seen reenactments of what’s been referred to as America’s original sin depicted on screen many times. Director Antoine Fuqua (see 2001’s “Training Day” and “The Equalizer” franchise) continues the harsh and realistic cinematic handling of this all-too-familiar material. And, with “Emancipation,” we get another necessary stark reminder of the inhumanity shown to our African American brothers and sisters.

As the Confederate soldiers mistreat the slaves in their care, Peter decides to run. But this means a dangerous trek through the swamp, hoping to make it to the Union army stationed in Baton Rouge. And he will be pursued to the very end by Jim Fassell and his snarling canines.

Peter’s descent into the hellish Louisiana bayou includes confrontations with snakes and alligators. But he’s resourceful. If only he could shake the persistent Fassell.

The first half of “Emancipation” is dedicated to the chase. And too much time is spent wallowing around in the swamp. While Peter professes to know the place, we get very little to indicate that he has a coherent escape plan. “Follow the sound of the canons,” he suggests to a fellow runner. And occasionally, that sound guides him.

So much of what happens in the watery shallows is so random and unfocused that it proves flat and monotonous. While Peter’s story is truth-based, artistic license is undoubtedly taken. Unfortunately, the stops along the way add little to the shaping of Peter’s character.

In one sequence, a horse on fire runs past him. In this context, what message is the burning horse meant to convey? In another scene, Peter happens upon a recently vacated tree house equipped with a small number of supplies. The coals of a fire there are still burning. Who were the inhabitants of this dwelling?

I became more interested in what we weren’t seeing than what was displayed on the screen. It was frustrating. Peter’s journey needed to have more attitude and more energy, and it lacked a purposeful lyrical quality. Instead, we get a man walking, running, and walking and running.

I was reminded of other movies about escape and journeys. “Cold Mountain” comes to mind. While not precisely on point, in that film, a Confederate soldier deserts to make his way home to the woman he loves. The young soldier’s passage reveals much about the time and his place in it. He grows because of his experiences.

By contrast, Peter’s way through the swamp to Baton Rouge is merely a trip with exciting moments. Even a sequence involving a burning house and a child fails to have the emotional impact required to draw the viewer into Peter’s plight.

But once Peter breaks free of the bayou, “Emancipation” becomes an entirely different movie. We get a jarring shift from a harrowing escape story to a full-on war picture. This abrupt change in tone is tough to reconcile. And the landmark photography session will put a lump in your throat, but those genuine, sincere emotions are shoved to the side in favor of bringing Peter’s quest full circle.

The look of the film is exasperating. “Emancipation” is a respectful and thought work, but the clumsy and somewhat flavorless narrative isn’t artfully constructed. Even the fine camera work of multiple Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (see “The Aviator,” “Hugo” and “JFK”) fails to make Peter’s story come alive and crackle with emotional pathos.

The film’s images suffer from a muted color palette that, at times, is almost black and white. I kept searching for rays of sunlight that might shine some color on the wounded souls — call it a bit of visual hope among the despair. Obviously, this is a choice fitting the morose storytelling. But because the film isn’t in black and white, this in-between color decision left me in emotional limbo. “Emancipation” needed a more purposeful approach, narratively and visually.

Will Smith is excellent as Peter. Despite his crippling actions in taking the stage to slap Chris Rock at this year’s Oscar ceremony, his acting performances have consistently been award-worthy. However, given his no doubt outsized influence over this project, on which he serves as a producer, he bears a measure of responsibility for the relative failure of “Emancipation.”

Maybe the decision to put director Antoine Fuqua at the helm was a misstep. I’ve consistently been a fan of Fuqua, but his wheelhouse is the gritty crime genre and action film. Had he brought those albeit modern revisionist sensibilities to this project, I think it would have been all the better for it.

But here, Fuqua’s talent in injecting a hip attitude into a production appears to be restrained. By holding back on what Fuqua does best, “Emancipation” is left somewhat rudderless and lacking in sharp perspective. Ultimately, this is a Will Smith film and not an Antoine Fuqua one.

“Emancipation” isn’t a bad movie, but given the weighty history of “Whipped Peter,” it isn’t the movie that the story deserved.