“Don’t touch me,” Peter snaps at the photographer’s assistant who reaches to his arm to pose him in front of the camera. In this moment, Peter exercises his liberty for one of the first times since escaping his enslavers. It is also the scene in the new movie Emancipation where the photographic origin of the film is revealed: The 1863 photograph of a shirtless man showing his heavily scarred back, the result of a brutal whipping during his enslavement.
Emancipation follows Peter, played by Will Smith, from bondage on a sprawling Louisiana plantation and forced labor to lay railroad tracks for Confederate heavy artillery to his escape, enlistment and service in the Union army. Along the way, we meet individuals who loom large in his life. His wife, Dodienne, (Charmaine Bingwa), who, like Peter, hails from Haiti, where a revolution by enslaved people broke French colonial rule. Jim Fassel (Ben Foster), a Northern-born man emotionally scarred from a childhood trauma after he befriended an enslaved girl. He hunts Peter through the Louisiana swamps. Captain André Cailloux (Mustafa Shakir), who, with a detachment of his 1st Regiment of the Native Guard, rescues Peter from certain death along the banks of the Mississippi River during operations at Port Hudson.
The original photograph at the core of the film was taken by McPherson and Oliver in Baton Rouge on April 2, 1863. An accompanying report by Asst. Surg. Frederick W. Mercer of the 47th Massachusetts Infantry, notes “I have found a large number of the four hundred contrabands examined by me to be as badly lacerated as the specimen represented in the enclosed photograph.” Emancipation also draws from details in a July 4, 1863, Harper’s Weekly article illustrated with an engraving of the image.
The film’s style strikes a gritty, somber tone through the use of muted color, verging on monochromatic. Cinematic scenes of the Union naval fleet in the Mississippi River and sweeping views of the May 27, 1863, assault against Port Hudson are convincing and realistic.
One may be tempted to compare Emancipation to Glory (1989) because of the connection to U.S. Colored Troops and the fight for freedom. It is a fair but superficial comparison. An important distinguishing factor is that Emancipation is centered on the struggle of Peter to gain freedom for himself and his family, while Glory is centered on the struggles of a white officer confronting his values and morals in wartime. Emancipation confronts its audience with the brutal treatment and indignities against the enslaved with an intensity Glory does not. In one disturbing scene, an innocent-looking daughter enjoying dinner with her family on the veranda of their stately plantation home glimpses Peter during his escape and reacts by screaming “runner” over and over as she rings an alarm bell.
Perhaps the most significant difference is the endings. In Glory, the Confederate flag is raised above the parapet of Fort Wagner following the failed assault of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. In Emancipation, the Confederate flag is lowered following a bloody attack by the 1st Native Guard.
Emancipation may have suffered fallout from Will Smith’s infamous slap of Chris Rock during the 2022 Academy Awards, and criticism of Producer Joey McFarland for bringing an original carte de visite of the man with the scarred back to the film’s premier. But do not let these incidents deter you. See the movie, which is available on AppleTV.
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