Union morale was faltering in the spring of 1863, when a photograph that came to be known as "The Scourged Back" appeared in Harper's Weekly. The image - of an escaped enslaved man exposing a treelike network of keloid scars from a beating he had endured months earlier - had a galvanizing effect, circulating widely among abolitionists and giving them a viscerally effective means of shocking the consciences of citizens whose commitments had begun to waver.
The historical drama "Emancipation" wraps a simultaneously excruciating and uplifting narrative around the man in that electrifying photo: Will Smith plays Peter (who was historically known as Whipped Peter as well as Gordon) as something of a 19th-century action hero, a man sanctified by God and endued with superhuman physical strength, acuteness of perception and spiritual grit. Directed by Antoine Fuqua with an occasionally puzzling combination of restraint and stylization, "Emancipation" turns a potent image into a pageant of spectacle and suffering.
We meet Peter months after he has endured the most horrific beatings with which he would become identified. As "Emancipation" opens, he is being moved from the Louisiana plantation where he has lived with his wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), and their children to help build a Confederate railroad. There, amid the squalor and violence and degradation and filth, Peter's strength and work ethic command the attention of overseer Jim Fassel (Ben Foster), who eyes him with contempt but also sneaking admiration. When Peter hears of Abraham Lincoln's recent Emancipation Proclamation, he engineers an escape through the swamps to Baton Rouge, where he and his fellow escapees might come under the protection of Union forces.
At this point, "Emancipation," which was written by William N. Collage, turns into a relatively conventional chase film, with Peter outsmarting Fassel and his men while braving elemental forces that include rain, mud, alligators, insects, snakes and - most brutal of all - his human pursuers. Fuqua, best known for "Training Day" and action pictures like "Olympus Has Fallen" and "The Equalizer," has enlisted cinematographer Robert Richardson to film "Emancipation" in desaturated colors that give it the sepia-toned feeling of a daguerreotype, in keeping with the image that two itinerant photographers produce once Peter achieves his destination. The sequence when he's discovered by the all-Black Louisiana Native Guards offers a rare, hard-won moment of triumph in a movie drenched in cruelty, misery and desperate self-sacrifice.
Collage and Fuqua hew to what is broadly accepted as Peter's real-life story - he took 10 days to reach Baton Rouge after escaping the plantation he was forced to work on, eventually joining the Union Army and serving during the siege at Port Hudson - and embellish it with speculation and sometimes surreal detail, such as when Peter happens upon a burning house toward the end of his journey. Accompanied by Marcelo Zarvos's somber, dissonant score, "Emancipation" becomes a study in human sadism and endurance, with Smith delivering his French-inflected dialogue through gritted teeth and doleful, pain-weary eyes.
Viewers will surely differ in the degree to which they're willing to separate Smith's messianic performance in "Emancipation" from his outburst at this year's Oscars ceremony. Some will be able to tease out Peter's righteousness from Smith's own sense of entitlement, while others may catch an unmistakable whiff of sanctimonious self-regard.
If Smith's performance exists in the liminal space between vanity and virtue, "Emancipation" is just as ambiguous: Like "12 Years a Slave" and "The Underground Railroad," it offers an unflinching look at the most savage depredations of slavery and its horrific human cost. But ultimately, Fuqua's attraction to extravagance - his love of slow-motion takes and aestheticized violence - takes over and wins the day.
As a portrait of a man battling extremes, both of his natural environment and of the murderous system that engulfs him, "Emancipation" has its own blunt-force power. But the aim of expanding on an indelible portrait - and packaging it within the confines of big-screen entertainment - has a curious reverse effect. The bigger frame has reduced one of the most world-changing images of the last three centuries to something familiar, generic and strangely less potent.