In Emancipation, the year is 1863, and in the US, President Abraham Lincoln has declared that all enslaved people are to be freed. However, while some slaves are shortly set to be released from their shackles, in parts of the country there is no change, with many African-American people working on plantations or taken to work camps.
One such person is Peter, a husband and a father who is taken into the Louisiana swamps to a slave camp, where he is to be worked until he dies. Peter is watched over by his ruthless captors, who treat him with contempt.
After a short while in the camp, Peter overhears two of his captors talking about Lincoln’s declaration. This unexpected news draws his attention, and he begins to formulate a plan to escape the camp and head for Baton Rouge – the current location of Lincoln’s army.
Seizing the opportunity when it arises, Peter flees from the camp and heads deeper into the swamp on a bid for freedom. But he is soon pursued by an expert hunter known as Fassel, who will stop at nothing to capture the escaped man.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Will Smith and Ben Foster, Emancipation is a historical action-drama, loosely based on the real-life story of Peter and Gordon – two former slaves who became the subject of a series of photographs that were published in 1863. The film was released in select cinemas back in early December, but is currently available to stream on Apple TV+.
Bleak, brutal, and at times quite difficult to watch, Emancipation is a hard-hitting film, which demonstrates the darkest depths of humanity. It is a film about cruelty, prejudice, and suffering, as well as survival in the face of adversity.
At times it may offer some uneasy viewing, but Emancipation is a very strong picture, which takes an uncomfortable subject and finds a way to tell its story. The film also features a stand-out performance from Will Smith, who is almost unrecognisable in the lead role of Peter, as well as some stunning cinematography from Robert Richardson.
I’ll start with Smith first, as he excels in this picture. Smith’s take on Peter is truly transformative, and when watching this film, it is easy to forget that it is Smith in the role.
From his speech, to his posture, Smith truly gives himself over to this part, inhabiting the character and bringing his struggles to life. Smith has played some great roles in his time, and while he may have recently created headlines for the wrong reasons, there is no denying how truly superb he is in this film.
Joining Smith on screen is Ben Foster, who provides fine support as Fassel. Foster’s role is small, but noteworthy, and he shines with the limited screen time he is given, to make this part his own.
I believe performances like these, from Foster and from Smith, come from actors who are determined to deliver the best work they can when given the right opportunity. These strong performances also come from collaboration with a director like Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer movies, etc), who knows how to find the right pitch and the right tone for his pictures.
With Emancipation, Fuqua delivers a film which is captivating throughout. He places Smith at the heart of his picture, then builds a world around him which is largely filled with danger and despair, and just a small glimmer of hope.
For the most part he keeps the story moving along nicely, only losing a little momentum toward the end. However, by this point he does enough with his movie to keep the audience invested long enough to reach the film’s climax, so a dip in the pace doesn’t derail anything.
Throw in some strong production design, great costuming and lighting, and of course the superb cinematography that I mentioned earlier, and Emancipation has a lot going for it. Once again, it deals with difficult material, so keep this in mind, but it handles its subject and its themes well.
If you’re looking for a movie with grit, or one to get truly lost in, then Emancipation is certainly that film. Smith’s performance alone is reason enough to check out this movie, but everything else that is served up on screen is stellar too.
The film has been available to view on Apple TV+ throughout the Christmas season, but if you missed it over the festive period, then now is the perfect time to catch up. Don’t let this one pass you by.
Thank you for taking the time to read this review on It’s A Stampede!. For more reviews, check out the recommended reads below.