Even the darkest periods of human history can teach us important lessons that we can apply to our daily lives. They are, in fact, uniquely good at it.
The abominable institution of slavery in the United States and its eventual eradication teaches us that not only is man capable of great evil, but that there is also a resilience of the spirit that is sometimes impossible to snuff out, no matter how bleak the circumstances.
Film is just one medium that helps us make sense of the troubled past, and Emancipation is the latest in such attempts; however, it falls short despite its admirable acting and interesting cinematography, as it doesn’t really offer anything new to say and the message is often lost in its Hollywood excesses.
Will Smith is exceptional as the main character, a runaway slave who history knows as “Whipped Peter,” the subject (or subjects… there is some debate over whether or not “Peter” was actually a press-created amalgamation of two different people) of the iconic and disturbing photographs that helped spur on the abolition movement during the Civil War. Smith is in top dramatic form here, as are his costars.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, a man who is primarily known as an action director, Emancipation often looks interesting as well, with its dynamic shots, unflinching grit, and boldly un-bold color palette.
Emancipation opts for a bleak, desaturated look that is so muted it often appears black and white, a choice that undermines the brutality of the situation at some points and leads to distraction at others. Colors randomly choose to present themselves throughout the film, which led me to believe more than once that my TV was on the fritz (fire, for instance, will sometimes be muted orange and other times will be as gray as everything around it).
Even without this color palette, Emancipation is bleak, violent, and often disturbing. The script is not particularly good, full of cliches and surface-level observations as it is, nor are the characters at all fleshed out. Peter is a man of faith who loves his family and his god, and that is about all we ever learn of him, other than the fact that he is a crack shot who can easily take on a gator hand-to-hand (hand-to-mouth?) and come out on top. This latter bit is where the movie falters the most:
Directed by an action maestro, Emancipation frequently seems more concerned with exciting set pieces than it is with making a salient point about the horrors of slavery, and when it does settle down to say something it is a basic statement like “we are not slaves, we are people.”
True and important, but far from groundbreaking or particularly thoughtful. This can also apply to the violence itself, which is dialed up to eleven and comes across as wanting to shock rather than to teach.
There are much worse films than Emancipation out there, but there are also much better ones that not only focus on the messed up parts of history, but also the things we can learn from them.
Emancipation is now available on Apple TV+.