It’s award consideration season, so here’s my consideration.
A history lesson behind the famous “scourged back” photo (circa 1863) of Peter Gordon, a slave who escaped bondage in 1863. Now with more action.
I’ve done a bit of research to find out how much is truly known of Peter Gordon’s escape from slavery. He escaped from a plantation in Louisiana in 1863 (with three other slaves) and spent ten days crossing forty miles of swampland while pursued by men and dogs, eventually reaching Union soldiers in Baton Rouge. I couldn’t find anything more about the ten days of pursuit, which comprises the bulk of Emancipation. Writer William N. Collage imagines those ten days filled with swamps, bees, snakes, gators, and tree stands on top of multiple narrow escapes from human and canine pursuers. The gator scene is a bit much, but it’s not a stretch to believe Gordon didn’t come across at least one swamp hurdle.
And what would a Civil War movie be without a battle scene? After seeing the famous photograph being taken, Gordon becomes a Union soldier and his unit (the Louisiana Native Guard) leads the attack in the Siege of Port Hudson. This is accurate to the true history, though we get Collage’s and director Antoine Fuqua’s imagining of the battle. Overall, the story is simple, clear, and never comes off as preachy or indulgent.
Will Smith delivers a very good performance as Gordon. With few lines of dialogue, Smith conveys struggle, strength, fear, and perseverance through physical actions and facial expressions. Most of the rest of the cast are given very small parts, but everyone does them well. We hate the Confederates, sympathize with the slaves, and admire the black Union soldiers and staff (including nurses). Charmaine Bingwa as Gordon’s wife Dodienne makes the most of her screentime, as does Ben Foster as Fassel, the man hunting Gordon through the swamps. Foster’s performance is no better displayed than when Fassel is sharing an anecdote explaining how he came to believe in the despicable “great replacement theory” (which still gets oxygen today), putting Foster in the same punchable category as Tucker Carlson.
Fuqua’s directing filmography is littered with crappy action flicks, broken up by the occasional watchable film. Emancipation is one of the latter and arguably the best film of his career. The subject matter forces Fuqua to be more thoughtful with the action and protagonist, lest he risk turning into a caricature one of American history’s most important figures to ending slavery. His deft handling of Gordon and Gordon’s story is admirable.
If I have one quibble it’s that I don’t understand why Fuqua chose to shoot the film in such washed out colors to be nearly a black and white film. The symbolism of black and white is obvious while the choice to let occasional color peek out (in grass and fire, for example) is not obvious. On the other hand, I appreciate the reasons behind showing the battle – adding to Gordon’s list of obstacles to overcome while also depicting the first known example of black soldiers leading an attack during battle. The horror of battle is captured as viscerally as the horrors of Gordon’s forty-mile journey, truly bringing history to life.
Emancipation is definitely worthy of a screenplay nomination and probably, but not certainly, a directing nod for Fuqua. I can also see costume design, makeup and hairstyling, cinematography, and production design nods as well. As for the elephant in the room, Smith delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, but with his slap of Chris Rock at least year’s Oscars still reverberating, he’ll likely be ignored (he was banned from attending Academy events, but not from being nominated for awards). I hope not, as that would do a disservice to Gordon’s story, which definitely should be remembered.