Do Oscar voters want to condone violence or stick with the bookies’ all-white list of favourites? Emancipation is inspired by “Whipped Peter”, an 1863 anti-slavery photograph that showed the world a man’s back covered in horrific welts and scars.
As the details of the escaped slave’s life remain sketchy, Fuqua has filled in the gaps with the tropes of a genre movie.
Here, Smith plays Peter as a Haitian husband and father who escapes a Confederate labour camp after learning that Abraham Lincoln’s soldiers are freeing slaves across the swamplands in Baton Rouge.
Like Schindler’s List, the film is shot in black and white with the occasional flash of colour. And hellish scenes in the labour camp suggest this is America’s Holocaust.
There are heads on spikes, broken bodies are piled in mass graves, and corpses hang from trees.
For most of the film’s 132 minutes, this is a chase movie as Peter is pursued through the swamps of Tennessee by Ben Foster’s villainous overseer. To survive, Peter has to rely on his wits, bravery, and Christian faith.
Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen, The Magnificent Seven) delivers muscular action scenes with precision, although a sequence where Peter goes full Tarzan to wrestle an alligator feels slightly at odds with the film’s austere cinematography.
Smith delivers an unusually unshowy performance. He speaks with a convincing Haitian accent but, like that Oscar appearance, this is a physical performance rooted in defiance and an unwavering glare.
- Emancipation, Cert 15, On Apple TV+ now