THB# 267: Emancipation
It’s a very awkward thing to review a bad movie about a subject that is very serious and should be given complete respect by us all.
However… I have to do my job.
Will Smith and his drama with The Academy is completely off the table in this discussion today. It would be problematic for me if the movie was great and my feeling that he has not been contrite in a real way and is trying to drop this film into the Oscar race too soon after The Slap. But the movie, unfortunately, has solved this problem for me.
I like Antoine Fuqua personally and professionally. I have been a cheerleader for Will Smith’s superstardom in those years when it was dominant and others minimized it. I think Smith is a good actor as well as a movie star and that he has given some great performances. Ben Foster is incapable of giving a bad performance, no matter what the script is throwing at him.
But busy screenwriter Bill Collage has had 7 feature screenplays that he is credited with and not a single one of them is good, much less great. Oops… make that 8.
The problem with Emancipation is mostly in the screenplay and concept. The story of the real life “Whipped Peter” starts with the fact that his actual name was Gordon.
It seems a minor distinction… but it speaks to the entire film. The “untold story” is clearly not the story, but a fantasy in which “Peter” keeps finding himself in the center of scenes and constantly escaping or rising as others fall. It’s Black Forrest Gump.
But the thing about Forrest Gump is that it’s all about context and has a lot of humor. Emancipation, by the nature of its roots, has no humor and the way it is made has no context. There is only one significant secondary character in the film, a white man chasing Peter. And at times, it does seem like a take on The Fugitive… but again, the material is so serious that Fuqua can’t treat it like a serious but rompy thriller like Harrison Ford vs Tommy Lee Jones did for Andy Davis.
This is a movie about “Whipped Peter” in which he never gets whipped. (A character, completely out of nowhere, uses a whip to control him from a horse late in the movie… but as far as we know, he leaves no marks after 3 or 4 whips before changing weapons.) We have no knowledge of the scarring until the moment in which he is asked to pose for photographers.
The movie just isn’t as respectful of the material as the audience is. When Smith’s Peter is being taken from his home for a work detail (no context as to why he is so virulently against this), he actually pulls the frame of his shack’s door off as the men pull him away… like an action hero. Bullets fell everyone around him… but never him. He somehow knows how to fight dangerous animals. He seems to be a survivalist… with no explanation how.
But the biggest thing is that the pursuit by the evil white guys goes on without context. One minute, they are on top of one another, the next they seem to be completely distant. It’s like the entire movie is shot in close-up… no context… things just keep happening… extreme things… and then it stops… and then another extreme moment… it just never feels real. It feels deeply felt. But not real.
I pulled this quotation from Gordon aka Peter because I think it is worth the time to read…
Ten days from to-day I left the plantation. Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer. My master was not present. I don't remember the whipping. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping and my sense began to come—I was sort of crazy. I tried to shoot everybody. They said so, I did not know. I did not know that I had attempted to shoot everyone; they told me so. I burned up all my clothes; but I don't recall that. I never was this way (crazy) before. I don't know what make me come that way (crazy). My master come after I was whipped; saw me in bed; he discharged the overseer. They told me I attempted to shoot my wife the first one; I did not shoot any one; I did not harm any one. My master's Capt. John Lyon, cotton planter, on Atchafalya, near Washington, Louisiana. Whipped two months before Christmas.
Now… that’s a first sequence of a movie with which I would likely be fascinated. Not saying it should be the whole movie. But it would set up the movie that Emancipation seems to want to be. They completely skip this part. I get the idea that Smith and Co. wanted to make a movie about fighting for freedom and not about the tortures of slavery. And yes, we all know that slavery is horrible from before the first frame of this movie. But a beating that almost kills a man, leaves him in bed for 2 months, makes him lose his mind a bit… that is the kind of truth and intimacy that is missing from this movie. The love of family, yes. But “I’ll never let that happen to me again” is an idea we can all get behind.
Basically, this is a 10-day escape/chase story with a forward and a coda. That’s fine. But Fuqua, for whatever reasons, won’t let it slow down and be real. Again, Forrest Gump. But Gump did slow down and let us breathe and linger in emotion in a wat this does not. Every time things slow down for a moment, Peter turns up in some other unlikely place doing something unlikely. And honestly, it started making me laugh after a while. (Really quietly, because the context made it completely inappropriate… but as a movie, it became silly.)
You’ll note that I haven’t spoiled anything. And I won’t. But the Ben Foster character is the only white person in the movie who seems more intelligent than sack of rotted potatoes. Even the couple “good” white people in this are not-so-subtle racists. But Foster, who plays his guy kind of like a mercenary racist murderer, but a thinking mercenary racist murderer. At one point, he gives The Speech that explains why is he the way he is. And Ben delivers it like a pro. But part of me took it a lot like the classic speech in Gremlins where Phoebe Cates explains how her father died in the chimney trying to do the Santa thing… meaning it is sad and painful and horrible… and funny. In this case, it’s about his childhood nanny who raised him, who was a slave, and who he wanted to bring to the dinner table one night. And it’s horrible and insane and sad… and funny.
I kept wanting Peter to stay somewhere - anywhere - for a while and to have a verbal exchange with someone else who was smart. I kind of thought it would happen when Ben Foster’s character caught him and tried to take him back. Nope. (I assumed there would be a whipping at some point in the film, which would require at least a temporary capture. Nope.)
Ironically, it is another Tom Hanks movie, Cast Away, where we find out how long a single character can hold our attention with his emotions and intentions and not some new immediate threat every 10 minutes. The Martian, too. But whatever elements were built in because of whomever’s feelings about this or that choice, this film never trusts us just to be quiet and deal with a developing decision. It keeps reverting into an action movie… which it really shouldn’t be.
There are a lot of things I could pick at and some I could compliment in the film. But the problem is not the details. The movie is mostly in a not-quite-black-and-white black and white… but Fuqua chooses moments to add a splash of color. There must be a logic to his choices, but he mostly stumped me. Which fire is red and which is not… didn’t get it.
Will Smith is doing an unconvincing Haitian accent - which most people won’t be bothered by… by best friend is Haitian - and the accent is even worse when he speaks French.
Some of the quick executions by gun, from all sides, made little sense to me. Slaves, as I recall, had a financial value. And did “the good guys” just kill slavers when they found them?
Spacing is a problem throughout the film. The audience cannot anticipate where the chaser and the chasee are in relation to one another. Likewise, the dogs are either remarkably skilled or complete losers. (Peter uses onions to throw them off, like in real life, but the specifics of cause and effect are not well established in the film.) At one point, Peter seems to be free to escape via water and for some reason, chooses to return to land and be chased. When Peter runs into people he knew from earlier in the story, it is almost always unexplained and unbelievable.
Will Smith’s performance is fine. Not super special. It is Oscar-y in that he is a movie star who is looking bad and doing an accent and being grim for an entire movie. But that kind of performance in Concussion was better in a better movie. And his best acting work is still in The Pursuit of Happyness or Ali. Even if he wasn’t on Double Secret Probation, he doesn’t deserve an Oscar nod here, not because he’s not good, but because there are a lot of actors doing better performances who won’t be nominated. (See: Devotion and Jonathan Majors)
I loved watching Ben Foster work this character… but the script just doesn’t give him what he needs to be an Oscar contender.
The surprise of the movie is Paul Ben-Victor, turning up with an accent and a big mustache in a small role. Most of you will be surprised that you recognize him but don’t know his name.
Robert Richardson is a cinematography master. But this film, while often beautiful, is almost too dense visually to be truly great. There is a lot going on, man.
The production team did great work. You can see how hard a lot of this was to capture on film. Everyone deserves credit. But the schizophrenia between a serious personal and an action movie just overwhelms everything.
When the audience applauds and laughs when someone evil is shot in the head, I felt what they were feeling… but I was also a little embarrassed for the movie. Because the moments should have been emotional, almost tearful with rage and relief, not giddy.
I was willing to love Emancipation, whatever I think of Will Smith at the moment. But it got deeper and deeper in the mire for me as it went along. This could have been a great movie with all the same people involved. But it just isn’t. Sorry.
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