When Peter (played by Will Smith) hears from one of his masters that the Union Army is freeing slaves in Baton Rouge due to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863, he decides to flee horrible conditions near Clinton, Louisiana, where slaves are assisting in building arms and a railroad for the Southern army. The pathway to freedom would have to lead through alligator- and mosquito-infested swamps, perhaps more dangerous for some of his co-workers than serving as a slave. But working as a slave is also dangerous, as illustrated by beatings, murders, and almost unbearable working conditions. No film has ever demonstrated in detail how Blacks slaves were mistreated until Emancipation, directed by Antoine Fuqua.

Peter, born in Haïti, is in his mid-40s, a devout Christian, a man of compassion, with considerable strength and determination. He is mistreated, tries to comfort those who are abused, and often shows defiance to the uncivilized masters who are in control. To clear the path for the railroad, explosions often occur. When another explosion is set off, he leads other slaves out of the encampment in March 1863 while being pursued by dogs and armed White men on horseback. One by one, the slaves are tracked down and brutalized until Peter and a friend decide to take separate pathways. The top master, Jim Fassel (Ben Foster) decides to pursue Peter, who manages to keep several yards ahead during 10 difficult days. Nevertheless, there are close calls. On one occasion Peter has to hold his breath under water to escape detection, yet soon after he comes to the surface, an alligator attacks him, leaving scars that he is later able to treat when he discovers a tree house. He climbs up, drinks water, finds a beehive, takes a piece of the hive, and takes a small boat toward his destination. When he meets up with his friend again, he hides inside a swamp tree and watches how Fassel tracks his friend down and kills him. Eventually, Fassel locates Peter at the edge of a Black unit of the Union Army, points a weapon at Peter, and a shot from the army kills Fassel. Then Peter discovers he is not entirely free, as he now can be recruited for combat. During his interview, he is asked to remove his shirt for a photo of his back, which reveals multiple whippings, a crisscrossing pattern that appears snakelike. Although a recruitment officer does not believe that someone who has been so disobedient in the past can be a good solider, Peter attests that he is willing to fight like hell. And he does so in a battle for the encampment at Clinton. After victory he is reunited with his family in the plantation from which he was recruited to the war preparation worksite.

Several details deserve attention. One is the fact that the cinematography is mostly in black and white. Fassel’s racist musing is articulated one night right in front of an obedient slave. On another occasion, Peter kills yet another obedient slave and comments on how that slave is the “worst.” No Confederate flag is displayed; instead, the Republic of Louisiana has its own rebel flag. Titles at the end indicate that among 400,000 slaves in Louisiana seeking freedom, Peter’s true heroism became a legend worldwide; the picture of his back evidently sparked a much more vigorous Union Army that relentless headed toward Atlanta. The Political Film Society has nominated Emancipation for best film on human rights of 2022 as well as best film exposé regarding a true African American hero.  MH

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