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EMANCIPATION: 3 ½ STARS. “better and for worse this is a Will Smith action movie.”

The influence of one of the most infamous photos from the American Civil War is still felt today, 159 years later. The picture, taken by the Union Army, of Gordon, a formerly enslaved man known as “Whipped Peter,” display his scourged bare back, the result of brutal whippings.

The indelible image, commonly called The Scourged Back, provided incontrovertible proof of the cruelty of American slavery and helped fuel the abolitionist movement. Now, courtesy of director Antoine Fuqua and his film “Emancipation,” now streaming on Apple TV+, the story behind the photograph is being told. “We are going to make sure that every person in the world truly knows what slavery looks like,” said the photographer who took the picture.

Will Smith, in his first role since the slap heard ‘round the world, is Peter, a deeply religious Haitian slave torn from his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and children to be sold to a Confederate labor camp. Unable to remain silent when the camp’s overseers, like the sadistic Fassel (Ben Foster), abuse the enslaved men working to his left and right, he is labelled defiant and regularly beaten or threatened with a loaded gun to his head.

“They break the bones in my body more times than I can count,” he says later, “but they never break me.”

When Peter learns of the Emancipation Proclamation, signaling that President Lincoln has freed the slaves, he plans an escape, fleeing with a group of men through some of Louisiana’s most treacherous swamps. Driven toward freedom, and the possibility of being reunited with his family, Peter battles nature, and beasts, both the four-legged and two-legged kind, to survive.

Shot in daguerreotype black and white, resembling a high contrast tin type photograph, “Emancipation” looks like a historical document of a sort, but comes with a modern storytelling sensibility. It is both a brutal representation of the evils of slavery and a Will Smith action movie.

As Peter makes his way through the bayou, rubbing onion on his clothes to put the bloodhounds off his scent, battling an alligator or defending himself with a cross-shaped necklace, his journey is rife with danger. The tense action scenes, which make up the bulk of the movie, are well realized by director Fuqua, but they come at the expense of the character.

We come to understand that Peter is a smart, courageous and resourceful man whose deeply held religious beliefs have given him a roadmap for life, but the film appears more interested in the way he sidesteps danger rather than creating a fully-formed portrait of the man himself.

Smith is raw in his performance and Peter’s inspirational journey to family and freedom is a visceral one, but, as presented, not a deep one.

For better and for worse we know what to expect from a Will Smith hero’s journey film and “Emancipation,” for better and for worse, is just that. It folds a death-defying action movie around a vivid portrait of the scourge of slavery and it’s an uneasy balance. On one side, the film is propped up by Fuqua’s deft, propulsive handling of the action. On the other, it feels like a missed opportunity to dig deep into what made Peter tick.

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