ALLIGATORS devouring a corpse, decapitation, sexual threats, and heavy violence, including scourgings and the ripping apart of bodies by dogs, are all part and parcel of Emancipation (Cert. 15). Subtle it isn’t, but if anyone needed convincing of the realities of black enslavement in America, this should do the trick.
William N. Collage, who wrote the screenplay, tends to take on religious themes, as in Exodus: Gods and Kings (Arts, 19 December 2014), for example. The director of this new film, Antoine Fuqua, however, is particularly known for testosterone-fuelled capers, such as Training Day (2001). Emancipation is in keeping with his previous output and more likely to appeal to action-hero fans with strong stomachs.
According to the credits, it is “inspired” by a true story, meaning that there are several embellishments of the events portrayed. Will Smith plays Peter, an escaped slave, relying on his cunning, faith, and love of family to elude Louisiana’s ruthless hunters. The film is based on the 1863 “Whipped Peter” photos published in Harper’s Weekly. These were taken during a Union Army medical examination, and influenced growing public opposition to slavery. Peter sees visions from God, and he experiences divine assistance in pursuing freedom.
He is not the only fervent believer — although that is not necessarily in God, but in oneself. A notorious slave-catcher, Fassel (Ben Foster), tells Peter: “You walk the earth because I let you. I am your God now.” The script, to some degree, interrogates the part that religion played in justifying slavery. Most Christian slave masters relied on a selection of biblical texts to vindicate their ownership, but by no means did all Americans endorse the practice. The abolitionist and preacher Frederick Douglass said at the time: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
Despite Fuqua’s publicly stated religious beliefs, how well faith comes out of his new film is a moot point. Peter’s Christianity is constant in the midst of cruel oppression, and it encourages others to seek freedom, not just of the soul, but of their bodies, too. The words of Moses “Let my people go” act as their biblical rallying cry on the one hand, whereas, on the other, white might is equated with right for those with power.
I am reminded of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Some critics regarded that as a horror film, and Emancipation has a similar quality to it. The obsession with gore overshadows the hope of salvation. Both films resemble the occasion in C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters when the senior demon advises Wormwood to focus his client’s attention on blood-splattered walls rather than any signs of God’s glory.
Slavery continues to be a fact of life. According to verified sources, there are tens of thousands in our own country alone who suffer even today from the miseries of human trafficking. While Fuqua’s film succeeds better as a historical chase movie, it should, at least, have some effect in raising contemporary concerns about slavery.
Showing in cinemas and streaming on Apple TV+.