December 14, 2022 – This grim-as-death tale of an escaped slave who becomes a soldier is based on fact, and it is loaded with adventure, as well as hell-on-earth hardship, pain and suffering.
I've known some people who ought to know better, but who argued that slavery wasn't so bad, or who bought into the bogus “Lost Cause,” argument over why the civil war was actually fought, or that blacks make poor soldiers. The man who put the notion of the humane treatment of slaves in the south to rest was named Peter (played in the movie by Will Smith of “King Richard”). When Peter's photo was taken on April 2, 1863, showing his back covered with scars from a severe beating that nearly killed him, he became the most famous slave in the country.
Peter (also known as Gordon) became famous because of the horrifying photo, and because his story and picture were published in Harper's Weekly in 1863. The article caused a sensation, and it galvanized opposition to slavery. This movie, based on that article, and Peter's own statement to the photographers, forms the basis of the story, while the many gaps in those stories are filled in here with fiction.
Peter, a blacksmith, is taken from his family on a Louisianan cotton plantation by Confederate soldiers in 1863. He is conscripted to work building a railroad for the Confederate Army. Conditions for slaves on the railroad project are brutal, and dangerous. When Peter hears that Lincoln has issued the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) he decides to escape. He attacks guards at a burial pit, and he and other prisoners (including Confederate deserters) make a break for it.
Three other slaves escape with Peter, who leads them into the swamp, where the pursuers, on horseback, will have trouble following them. Their pursuers are led by Fassel (Ben Foster of “Hell or High Water”) a skilled tracker and a crack shot. Fassel, in a fireside chat with his fellow trackers, explains that he respects and fears the slaves he is pursuing. He fears that negroes with replace white people. This is a theory that has recently gained prominence among white supremacists, and politicians of a certain stripe.
Fassel and his fellow skilled trackers and dogs hunt the slaves through and around the swamps as they head toward the Union Army forces near Baton Rouge, some 40 miles away. It is not just the dogs that Peter has to fear (he rubs onions over himself to throw off his scent) but deadly snakes and alligators as well. Food and potable water are also scarce.
When Peter finally makes it to the Union forces, specifically, the Louisiana Native Guards, he finds that he still is not free, but he does have a choice of work, or joining the army. He joins the army.
When Peter's commander questions his bravery, he says, “I fight them, and they beat me. They whip me. They string me up. They sell me. They throw me down a well. They pull me out and beat me again, and I fight them again. They cut me. They burn me. They burn my neck. They burn my feet. They break the bones in my body, more times than I can count, but they never, never break me.”
The next day, in May of 1863, he fights Confederate troops at the Battle of Port Hudson. It is a hard-fought, deadly battle, with Confederate troops dug in, commanding the field with massed gun fire and cannons. This movie has a lot of action to recommend it, but it also is a good antidote to the falsehoods spread by white supremacists about slavery, the Civil War, and the bravery of black soldiers. Some will never be convinced by the truth of this movie, but maybe some, on the fence, will be.
Will Smith is persona non grata in Hollywood, and among some film critics, because of he attacked comedian Chris Rock at the Academy Awards earlier this year. Does that have anything to do with this movie? No. This is a good movie and Will Smith gives a fine performance in it, along with Charmaine Bingwa (“Trees of Peace”) who plays Peter's wife, Dodienne. Ben Foster also gives a good performance as the villain.
I did not care for the strange extremely muted coloration of this color movie. The colors are so muted that it looks a lot like a black and white film. The colors stand out most in the scenes that have open flames. For the most part, however, the images just look drab. Most movies and TV shows these days are too drab, and not realistically colored anyway. This takes the trend too far.
The screenplay by Bill Collage (“Exodus: Gods and Kings”) is very good, and you cannot fault director Antoine Fuqua's (“Training Day”) bona fides when it comes to telling this kind of powerful, unblinking story about racism and history. This film rates a B.
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