An over-inflated B movie with little gold delusions of grandeur, Antoine Fuqua’s thoroughly Oscar-pilled “Emancipation” is the kind of immaculate misfire that could only happen because Hollywood is spinning off its axis. Because the American film industry has sacrificed medium-budget programmers at the altar of monolithic franchise blockbusters, original stories can only expect to be told if they feed into the awards machine and/or manufacture a sense of cultural significance. That’s how you wind up with the director of “Olympus Has Fallen” making a stiff-jawed slavery epic that desperately wants to be something a lot smaller — and a little less important.
That was never an option. By virtue of its release date, subject matter, and star power alone, “Emancipation” was created to be seen through the same narrow lens of the system that produced it, and “The Slap” — an existential threat to any feature so dependent upon the Oscars for market enthusiasm — ironically did even more to yoke the movie into Hollywood’s annual horse race at its own expense.
“Emancipation” is based on the true story of Gordon (here referred to as Peter), a man whose keloid-scarred image was captured on a series of carte de visite photographs that were taken at a Union camp in Baton Rouge after he escaped from a plantation some 40 miles away and survived a 10-day trek across deadly swampland; the sight of his mutilated back was then used to help the abolitionist movement convey the atrocities of slavery to a disbelieving world.
The unrelentingly brutal film that Fuqua has made about him aspires to have the same effect on modern audiences, whose imaginations might struggle to comprehend the most visceral sins of the 19th century, and/or recognize the very real perils that America’s unresolved prejudices continue to pose as we move deeper into the 21st. That’s a noble ambition for a movie to have, but it’s not an ambition this movie was built to achieve.
Here is a $130 million prestige picture that better reflects the consequences of “The Revenant” than it does those of Reconstruction (Fuqua’s epic feels every bit as silly and sadistic as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s broadly similar Best Picture nominee, if mercifully never as pretentious). “Emancipation” tasks itself with depicting the true horrors of human bondage at the same time as it basks in speed-ramped action setpieces, lets Ben Foster off the leash as a Southern-fried Amon Göth who’s obsessed with bringing the story’s hero to heel, and — best of all — forces Will Smith into a knife fight with an alligator in a scene that feels all the more ridiculous because it’s rendered in some of the most gorgeous monochrome underwater cinematography since “The Night of the Hunter.”
(At one point in this allegedly serious movie about the most serious of subjects, that same alligator leaps out of nowhere and chomps on an enslaved runaway, delivering the kind of popcorn-tossing jolt that would feel more at home in a summer blockbuster than it does here.)
American movie-watchers are used to consuming their history lessons with a heavy layer of artificial butter on top, but William N. Collage’s script filters Gordon’s saga through so many creaky Hollywood tropes that the over-cranked genre stuff begins to feel more honest by comparison. At least the opening scene where Peter rips the door frame off the plantation’s slave quarters as he’s being dragged away from his family registers with raw emotional truth.
If only the same could be said for this character’s intractable Christian faith, which persists in the face of watching his fellow runaways get slaughtered, and peaks with him murdering a slave catcher with a metal cross that he finds on the body of a dead child. Or of the sudden fourth act pivot into “Glory” territory, which begins with a deus ex Mustafa Shakir ending Foster’s plot in the least satisfying way imaginable, and then effectively recasts Peter as the world’s greatest soldier just a few minutes later. Being reminded that “Cowboy Bebop” survivor Shakir possesses an extraordinary screen presence goes a long way. Learning that Gordon really did go from human “contraband” to Union Army hero in the span of a few short weeks has the opposite effect, as “Emancipation” dramatizes that remarkable transformation with a ham-fistedness that makes the most remarkable facts of its story seem fake.
And pour one out for Charmaine Bingwa, as the wonderful “The Good Fight” breakout is given worse than nothing to do in a Penelope-like role as Peter’s wife. It would be one thing if she just served as the north star that’s motivating him back to his family, but “Emancipation” also forces the actress to deliver a clunky monologue in a cold sweat before using her character to gin up some awfully cheap suspense an hour later.
For his part, Smith gives a simple but committed turn as a man who will stop at nothing to return home, fraught as that word must be for anyone so enslaved (Peter is taken away to work on a Confederate railroad). In keeping with the “Revenant” of it all, a cynic might think of Smith’s work here as the kind of self-abasing performance that a movie star gives before they win an Oscar (at various points in the story Peter smothers himself in mud, shit, and onions), and it’s true that “Emancipation” was in the works long before Smith emerged as the Best Actor favorite for “King Richard.” A more generous take might conclude that Smith’s uncomplicated stoicism helps Peter to lead us through hell without distracting us from it, the character serving as a Virgilian tour guide through Fuqua’s increasingly phantasmagoric inferno of dismembered bodies, decapitated heads, and disemboweled soldiers.
If “Emancipation” is replete with images of Black suffering, perhaps viewers can take some consolation in the fact that those images have seldom looked more arresting than they do through the lens of Robert Richardson’s camera. The “Django Unchained” and “Bringing Out the Dead” cinematographer captures the film’s desiccated New Orleans sets in an ultra-desaturated grayscale that makes it hard to tell if the footage was shot in color and drained within an inch of its life, or shot in black-and-white and flecked with splashes of color — red fire, green saplings — in post. Smoke is indistinguishable from air.
The garish daytime scenes flirt dangerously close to Zack Snyder territory, while the spectral nighttime scenes are kissed with a noirish luminescence that suggests a bad fever dream. It’s a boldly liminal approach to a film that takes place in the volatile stretch of time that separated the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 from the nationwide adoption of its decree in June 1865; every furtive step of Peter’s journey from Ben Foster’s railroad to Baton Rouge and beyond falls on the uncertain ground between suffering and salvation.
The emphasis on suspense and aesthetics combine to make “Emancipation” an easier sit than one might imagine, given its harsh setting and inhumanity — at least until the thrill of the chase gives way to overbearing drama in the movie’s final 30 minutes. But even the most effective moments here betray the implication that Fuqua’s epic is, like the image that inspired it, a movie that conveys what “slavery truly felt like.”
Whatever its aims, “Emancipation” is ultimately a movie that conveys nothing so much as how modern artists re-create images of what slavery felt like, and under what financial circumstances they’re able to do so. I wish it had done more to create its own context, but with a nine-figure budget, the awards season prestige required to justify it, and the overblown scandal that eventually came with it, freedom was always going to be easier for this film to dramatize than it was to imagine for itself.
Apple will release “Emancipation” in select theaters on Friday, December 2. It will be available to stream on Apple TV+ starting Friday, December 9.