In 1863, a slave named Gordon, along with three others, escaped from a Louisiana plantation, hoping to reach Baton Rouge, where a battalion of Union soldiers were stationed. This 40-mile trek across a heavily wooded, swampy area riddled with danger lasted 10 days. Once there, Gordon joined the Union Army and served honorably, once being captured by Confederate forces who savagely beat and left him for dead. Recovering, he crossed enemy lines and rejoined his regiment. His record indicates he fought bravely during the war, achieving the rank of sergeant, and helped lead the assault during the Siege of Port Hudson.
While Antoine Fuqua's Emancipation is based on Gordon's life, you will see very little of his actual story on the screen. Taking a cue from 1930s and '40s biopics, screenwriter Bill Collage greatly exaggerates this man's experiences. Turning him into a 19th century action hero, he manages to escape from a labor camp that would make Dante's 7th circle of hell look like a picnic before heading out on a cross-country adventure Harrison Ford would have a hard time finishing.
The story begins with Peter (Will Smith), a slave of Jamaican descent, being separated from his family, having been sold to the Confederate government to help build the railroad. The conditions of this work camp are rendered in the most horrific manner possible, Fuqua treating us to the sight of numerous decapitated heads on spikes and amputated limbs, while slaves are shot and abused with impunity. While the violence heaped upon these men was certainly horrendous, the question of why the overseers would wantonly kill members of their workforce is a question that's never considered.
But no matter, Fuqua isn't interested in presenting the facts of Gordon's – I mean Peter's – life or employing any logic. His intent is to give us a Civil War Fugitive. This begins when Peter escapes from the evil manhunter Fassel (Ben Foster, giving an uncommonly bad, one-note performance) and the chase starts. The journey across the swamp allows Fuqua to employ multiple long, sweeping shots that give us a bird's eye view of Smith as he runs across creeks, swamps and battlefields. When not wearing out this approach, the filmmaker leans on slow-motion shots to let us really concentrate on Smith's furrowed brow and appreciate Peter's agony.
Dealing with the elements and his pursuers is not enough. No, before Peter gets to the Union encampment, he wrestles and kills an alligator, attempts to rescue a young girl from a house fire and serves as a moral compass for any other runaway he encounters. His later exploits while serving in the army are no less spectacular.
What brought Peter to prominence was a photograph taken of him after entering the Union camp. The sight of his savagely whipped, horrifically scarred back sent shockwaves through the nation. Here, finally, was irrefutable proof of the brutality of slavery. When Peter's story and the picture were printed in Harper's Bazaar it was said to have inspired many freed slaves to enlist as he had and turned the tide of public opinion regarding the purpose of the war. However, this is only mentioned in passing during the end credits
Filmmakers take poetic license, that's a given. But what Fuqua and screenwriter Collage do here is extreme. In turning Gordon into an action hero, they minimize his experiences. Surviving the horrific conditions he encountered during his flight, his experiences in battle and the ramifications of the photo of his wounds are fascinating and need no embellishment. Thinking otherwise does Gordon and his brethren a great disservice.