Directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Bill Collage, “Emancipation” tries to be many things all at once, and in the end, you cannot really ascertain what the intent of the film is. Starring Will Smith and Ben Foster in prominent roles, the film is based on true events and tells us the story of Gordon, who we know as the subject of an infamous photo clicked during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Abraham Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863, according to which the slaves were given the status of free men. Baton Rouge had been taken by the Union, and the sound of the so-called Lincoln cannons gave the enslaved people a lot of hope, and they believed that they could escape their harrowing reality if somehow, they were able to reach Baton Rouge. Historical events like the American Civil War, The World War, The Indian Independence movement, and the fight against apartheid in South Africa have been a source of infinite stories, and over the years, we have seen those stories getting adapted into films. The stories originating out of these historical events are so compelling that it gives a very strong premise to the film, and one doesn’t have to search for conflicts to further add any dramatic weight to the story.
“Emancipation” shows us how, even after being based on such nerve-racking events, you can make an emotionally hollow film. It feels like “Emancipation” is in a bit of a predicament where it cannot really decide what exactly it wants to say. In the beginning, it seems like the achromous world of Antoine Fuqua wants us to have a cathartic experience like “12 Years a Slave,” but soon you feel like you are watching a survival film, where the makers are trying really hard to make the threats look real through the use of CGI and VFX. That, too, would have worked to some extent if the film had had a soul and not felt like a lifeless slideshow of well-shot frames put together. No doubt the cinematography by Robert Richardson is brilliant, but sadly it isn’t backed by a very strong narrative. Even after more than 150 years, those pictures of “Whipped Peter” and “Wilson Chinn” speak a thousand words, and “Emancipation” could not come close to it.
Approximately four lakh people were still enslaved in Louisiana when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Most of the enslaved people hoped that they would be freed once the Union forces came to rescue them, but there were a few who were willing to take matters into their own hands and fight for their own freedom. Peter worked on the cotton plantation of Captain John Lyons, located near the Atchafalaya River when the men from the Confederate Army came and took him to Clinton where slaves were being brought for building railway tracks. Peter lived on the cotton plantation with his wife, Dodienne, and their kids; and though the life there wasn’t any good, the thought of being separated from them really scared him. He didn’t know when he would see them again in life or what fate had in store for him. With tears in his eyes and a rebellion surging in his heart, Peter stared at his family as if it were the last time he was getting the opportunity to do so. Things were worse at the Confederate army base. Peter met the dreaded Jim Fassel for the first time in the camp. Jim was a ruthless man who treated the slaves like fodder. But Jim was not always like that. The hatred inside him was given birth to and nurtured from a very young age, and he had been taught by his father how to deal with a man of color. Children are like blank canvases, and it is the paint that is put on them during their brooding years that ultimately shapes their personalities. Jim told the others that in his childhood a black woman used to take care of him, and surprisingly, he developed a strong emotional connection with her. Children aren’t born racist, and Jim was no different. He used to steal food and give it to her when she was hungry. One day his father came to know about it, and he killed the maid in front of Jim. He told Jim that first, they would take food, then their jobs, and finally rise to a position where they would subject the white man to the same brutality that they had been subjected to in the past. From that day on, Jim made it his mission in life to oppress and torture each and every black man and woman that came his way.
Peter and his friends had gotten a whiff of the fact that Lincoln had declared the slaves to be free. They were looking for an opportunity to run from the base camp, but they knew the kind of punishment that a runner got if he was caught, and that image of them getting tortured lowered their spirits. They were scared, and they waited for somebody to take the lead and show them the way. Peter realized that if he didn’t show courage, maybe he would die in the camp, and nobody would even come to know about his existence. The thought of never being able to meet his family gave him courage. Even in such dire circumstances, Peter had an immense amount of faith in his God. The Confederate trackers had taken a strong dislike to Peter as he was not as subdued as other slaves. They saw anarchy in his eyes, and it greatly bothered them. Peter saw through their intentions, and he knew that a time would come when they would try to kill him. Peter was putting the dead body of a fellow inmate in a pit when he saw that one of the soldiers was stealthily taking out his gun to shoot him. Peter used the spade with which he was digging the pit and attacked the soldiers, taking them by surprise. It caused a commotion, and the other soldiers finally mustered the courage to run away from the camp. Jim Fassel shot a couple of “runners,” but his eyes were fixated on Peter. Jim Fassel launched a search mission and entered the swampy woods to catch the slaves and teach them a lesson.
Apart from having the hunters on his back, Peter had to face a lot of other survival challenges too. He had decided to go through the swamp because that was the only way through which he could outrun Jim and his bloodthirsty dogs. But he didn’t realize that those swamps were home to deadly reptiles and other dangerous creatures. Peter was attacked by a crocodile, but his survival instinct was such that he killed the beast—a feat that even the Confederate hunters marveled at when they learned of it. Peter found abandoned settlements and camps on his way, where he found enough food and water to keep himself alive. Call it fate, destiny, or the strong will of a man; Peter kept moving in the direction from which the sounds of cannons were coming.
Towards the end of “Emancipation,” we see that Jim finally catches hold of Peter. You realize how sadistic Jim was from the way he endlessly chased Peter. He could have easily saved his resources and let him go, but he wanted to set a precedent. His bloated ego couldn’t digest the fact that a black man had tricked him and escaped from his captivity. Jim was about to shoot Peter when Lt. Andre Cailloux came to his rescue. Cailloux was from the first Louisiana Native Guard, and he immediately took a gravely injured Peter to his camp so that he could get the help that he needed so desperately. Peter was cured by the doctors, and even they were surprised at how he was able to still breathe even after being wounded so severely. In the camp, Peter was given two choices: either to join the federal farms or be a part of the army.
Andre Cailloux took Peter to the General of the battalion, as he together with everybody else was amazed at how he had survived in the swamp for so long, and they were also keen to know if there was any valuable information, he could provide pertaining to the camps he was kept in. Peter told the General that the enemy had huge cannons and massive artillery, which they couldn’t even imagine. The General questioned the credibility of Peter and called him unfit for combat. Looking at Peter’s photograph, he passed a comment, calling him disobedient. Peter gave him a befitting reply and said that what he perceived as disobedience was actually a fight for survival and proof of the fact that no matter how brutal the circumstances got, he was somebody who would not back out, no matter how grave the circumstances were. Peter was allowed to be a part of the mission, and he went to fight for his rights on the battlefield. The Louisiana-native Guard was at a disadvantage due to the terrain on which the war was being fought. The enemy had a clear shot, and the native guards had to cross an open field to reach where their cannons were kept. Andrew Cailloux died on the battlefield, but Peter kept on going and motivating the soldiers to move ahead, and finally, they were able to hoist the Union Flag on the post. Soon after that, Peter got reunited with his family, though the war still went on for a couple of years.
The photograph of Gordon, a.k.a. “Whipped Peter,” taken by William D. McPherson and Mr. Oliver, still leaves you devastated, and one cannot help but imagine the kind of torture and suffering people would have endured in those times. It is also a proof of the fact that, though we call ourselves civilized, the human race is the cruelest and most barbaric of all living beings.
“Emancipation” is a 2022 Drama Biopic film directed by Antoine Fuqua.
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