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  • Debbie Cerda

A Quest for Freedom in EMANCIPATION

Emancipation is a riveting historical drama set in Louisiana in the mid-1800s, and is loosely based on the life of Gordon aka “Whipped Peter" which depicts the brutal reality of slavery in the United States. Gordon was a formerly enslaved Black man whose photographs, including one of his bare back covered in scars from an overseer's whippings, were published as magazine illustrations worldwide in 1863. These images were evidence of the inhumane treatment of slaves, and fueled the abolitionist movement.

Emancipation was directed by Antoine Fuqua, written by William N. Collage and co-produced by Will Smith, who stars as Peter, a runaway slave who escapes the brutality of his plantation master. As he journeys towards Baton Rouge through perilous swamps and marshes, Peter is pursued by relentless slave catchers intent on cutting short his journey to freedom. Emancipation specifically takes place in the 1860s - a significant time after President Abraham Lincoln declared an end to slavery in the US.

Will Smith delivers a powerful performance as Peter, capturing both his physical and emotional struggles as he fights to survive and be reunited with his family. Emancipation is unflinching in its depiction of the violence and horror of slavery, and the cinematography and sound design create a palpable sense of tension and danger throughout. The film also stars Ben Foster as the brutal slave hunter and Charmaine Bingwa as Dodienne, Peter’s enslaved wife and mother of his children. Bingwa’s award-worthy performance is evocative and brings depth to a character who is not seen for much of the film.

Director Antoine Fuqua and cinematographer Robert Richardson expertly balance the intense action sequences with quieter moments of reflection and introspection, making Emancipation not just a tense adventure but a poignant meditation on the human cost of oppression and resistance.

Emancipation employs an artistic desaturated color palette that gives an almost black-and-white quality. While some viewers may be put off by the desaturation, I found this artistic element to represent the quality of life experienced by the main character.

Another flaw is the creative license taken with placing Peter in the 1st Louisiana Native Guard and in a critical battle creates a factual error. The assault on Port Hudson did not take place or end as shown in the film.

While the film is undoubtedly challenging to watch at times, it is ultimately a vital story of triumph and resilience in the face of unimaginable adversity. Emancipation is impactful and significant, leaving a lasting impression on its audience.


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