Producers: Will Smith, Jon Mone, Joey McFarland and Todd Black   Director: Antoine Fuqua   Screenplay: Bill Collage   Cast: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Steven Ogg, Gilbert Owuor, Mustafa Shakir, Timothy Hutton, Grant Harvey, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Jabbar Lewis, Michael Luwoye, Aaron Moten and Imani Pullum    Distributor: Apple+

Grade: C+

The famous photograph of the escaped slave called “Whipped Peter,” which appeared in Harper’s Weekly on July 4, 1863 and helped galvanize abolitionist sentiment when it was widely distributed, served as the inspiration for Bill Collage’s screenplay for “Emancipation.”  Very little is actually known about the historical Peter (or Gordon, as he was also called), apart from the few facts reported in the magazine from his own testimony, so Collage has used them as a skeleton, fashioning a tale that fuses a grueling depiction of the brutality of slavery with many of the crude tropes of Hollywood’s action-movie template. 

Curiously, Antoine Fuqua’s film does not dramatize the scourging that left the horrible scars on Peter’s back familiar from the Harper’s photo, which according to the man’s own account occurred on the Louisiana plantation where he lived until early 1863 (and resulted in the owner’s dismissal of the overseer who ordered it).  Instead it begins with Peter (Will Smith), a highly religious man, being ripped from his family—his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and their four children—after he and several others have been requisitioned to work on a railway being constructed by the Confederate government to connect nearby Clinton and Port Hudson.  The camp is presided over by steely-eyed Jim Fassel (Ben Foster) and a squad of cruel soldiers and civilian low-lifes.  For roughly thirty minutes the film records the workers’ brutalization at their hands, until the naturally obstinate Peter, accidentally learning of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, seizes an opportunity to lead his fellow captives in an escape. 

Many of them are killed in the attempt, but Peter and three others make it into the Louisiana swamp.  His goal is to head for Baton Rouge, which is in the Union army’s control, but they have to separate to confuse the implacable Fassel, his dogs and the other pursuers.  Of his companions one is attacked by Fassel’s hounds, and another is shot; the third, named Gordon (Gilbert Owuor) makes it to Baton Rouge, though wounded.

Apart from occasional speculative shifts to the treatment of Peter’s family in his absence—most notably a sacrifice Dodienne makes when threatened with being separated from the children—most of the middle hour of “Emancipation” follows Peter’s desperate ten-day trek to cover the forty miles to Baton Rouge with Fassel in close pursuit.  Some of the details are based on Peter’s testimony, like his habit of spreading onion juice over his skin to throw off the hounds, but many of the episodes—an encounter with a poisonous snake, an underwater battle with a ravenous gator, the heroic rescue of a girl from a burning home that culminates with Peter killing two slave-hunters, one with a metal cross the girl hands him and the other with a rifle—are simple inventions, hammered home not only by Fuqua’s heavy-handed direction and Conrad Buff’s blunt editing, but by Marcelo Zarvas’ pounding score.  And the climax of the chase, with Fassel about to shoot a kneeling Peter while sneering out a blasphemy, only to have his threat suddenly cut off, is pure cliché; Peter’s response to Fassel’s taunt is one any viewer could shout out before it’s delivered, too. 

In the final half-hour of the film, Peter joins the Union forces—as the real freedman actually did.  But his central role in the Battle of Port Hudson is, once again, an invention, as is his return to his family.  The battle is nicely staged, however, and Mustafa Shakir and Steven Ogg have nice turns as officers Peter serves with.  The treatment of the owner of the plantation where Peter had lived (played by Timothy Hutton), however, may raise some eyebrows if looked at from a modern perspective. 

It’s clear that “Emancipation” is intended as a serious depiction of the horrors of slavery, and in some respects it’s quite impressive as such.  The initial scenes set on the plantation and in the work camp are unrelenting, and Smith’s intense performance, showing the simmering anger boiling beneath his forced submissiveness and the quiet exhibitions of independence, is compelling, even if the portrayal of indomitability in the face of cruelty is hardly new. Visually too the film, shot by cinematographer Robert Richardson in widescreen images that are bleached of virtually all color to mimic Civil War photographs like “Whipped Peter,” and with a production design by Naomi Shohan and costumes by Francine Jamison-Tanchuck that capture the period expertly, is evocative.

Those virtues continue into the chase sequences in the swamp, and though Foster doesn’t bring much to Fassel beyond grim efficiency (he’s certainly not as memorable as another inexorable pursuer, the mad preacher played by Robert Mitchum in the even more visually potent “The Night of the Hunter”), Smith’s energy and commitment are indisputable. 

But even here the action-movie conventions intrude.  The alligator sequence is the most irritating example, but there are others.  And by the time the film turns into a mini version of “Glory” in its final act, the damage has become clear.  It’s all too easy to turn a narrative about a suffering slave into a story of triumph, and when the project is handed to a writer like Collage (whose last feature credit was “Assassin’s Creed,” and before that penned “The Transporter Reloaded”) and a director like Fuqua, whose talents have never veered in the direction of restraint, the dangers are obvious.

One can admire Smith’s desire to mount a searing indictment of slavery, especially at a time when some powerful politicians in the country seem determined to downplay both its past reality and its continuing impact.  It’s a pity that the effort has been so seriously compromised.