Thursday, December 8, 2022

'Emancipation': History as horror

    In  1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The Civil War was still raging and the news of liberation couldn't reach all those who were enslaved in the South.
   Compelling and often horrific, Emancipation begins when one enslaved man is separated from his family and sent to a Confederate work camp. 
   Known as Peter, the man learns of Lincoln's proclamation from an overheard conversation. When he finds an opportunity to flee, he takes it.
   Will Smith stars as Peter, a runaway who has two goals: to reach freedom and to reunite with the wife (Charmaine Bigwa) and the children from whom he has been separated.
   In the hands of director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), Emancipation blends a variety of genres, often to striking effect: Historical horror and action movie tropes revolve around the barebones character Smith creates.
    Peter is a man of faith, determination, and grit. Unbroken by  the brutalities of enslavement, Peter always manages to suggest stature, which, unfortunately underscores Smith's star power. Peter's clearly a cut above his contemporaries.
    Fuqua and cinematographer Robert Richardson present the movie's images in near black-and-white with touches of color occasionally peeking through, greenery and such. Emancipation has a sustained starkness that matches the barbaric treatment inflicted on the movie's Black characters.
   If you're in the market for an actor to play a quietly mean white man, you definitely want to consider Ben Foster. Foster plays Jim Fassel, the relentless hunter who tracks Peter. The pursuers are on horseback; Peter often must run barefoot.
    Fuqua overdoes the adventure elements, notably in a scene in which Peter battles a swam gator. And at times, the movie's chase elements can't help but seem too conventional.
    Emancipation includes a lengthy epilogue involving a grisly battle that Peter joins. Fuqua strips Civil War combat of anything resembling glory, turning it into a wanton, chaotic bloodbath.
    The movie was inspired by a real photograph that was distributed during the war years. It was titled Whipped Peter. Abolitionists used it to persuade the world that there was nothing noble or genteel about the foundations on which Southern life was built.
   Fuqua stages a reenactment of the taking of the photograph toward the movie's end.
    Emancipation may suffer from an odd problem: By stylizing the movie so completely, Fuqua creates something that can feel disassociated from anything real, a super-vivid world full of desaturated color, ominous images, stark moods, gliding cameras, sneering brutalities, and venomous characters. 
      I found myself conflicted about this. It's difficult to argue against portraying the institution of slavery as worthy of blood-curdling treatment. It may not totally work but can we blame Fuqua for wanting to stamp the word "horror" on a shameful bit of American history? He does so at every chance he gets.

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