It’s easy to make people cry. Unless you possess nerves of steel, the sight of a human being dying from cancer, bidding farewell forever, or being tortured, displaced, enslaved, raped, [insert injustice here] is bound to tug at the heartstrings. Director Antoine Fuqua – surely not known for subtlety or poignancy – utilizes these kinds of cheap, manipulative tactics in his “slave torture porn” dramatic thriller Emancipation. There’s nary a shred of subtlety or novelty to be found here—the narrative amounts to over two hours of humans undergoing excruciating mental and physical pain.
Why this would be deemed relevant now is beyond me. The sole purpose the film, written by Bill Collage, seems to serve is to remind us of the cruelties we’ve inflicted upon each other and the viciousness and depravity we’re capable of. The writer and the director rub our faces in muck until all we see is darkness, providing the faintest ray of light at the end. You will be infuriated – not so much at the witnessed injustices as at the filmmaking team for subjecting you to over two hours of grief and misery. You’d be better off simply watching the news.
“Peter forms an alliance with fellow slaves and escapes…”
Emancipation starts with a whimper, literally (there’s lots of whimpering). Set in the swamps of Louisiana right after the Emancipation Proclamation, we witness slave Peter (Will Smith) being roughly torn away from his family by demonic plantation owners. “Demonic” may be too highfalutin a phrase, actually – they’re more like brainless swine, possessing no characteristics save for being racist, callous, and filthy as s**t.
The cleanest one is also the meanest: bigwig Jim (Ben Foster) sports a cowboy hat on his balding head and regards his snarling dogs as more human than the slaves he owns. Peter forms an alliance with fellow slaves and escapes during an opportune moment. Now, pursued by Jim, Peter and his hapless crew have to find their way through the swamp to Baton Rouge and, hopefully, to family and freedom.
"…Fuqua applies a sledgehammer to a subject that demands a fine paintbrush."