When we meet Peter (Smith), he is still with his family, taking care of his wife Dodienne (Charmain Bingwa) and showing the audience how much Christianity and innate love for the Lord is centered in him. His faith continues throughout the film, even as he is torn away from his family and sold to a Confederate labor camp building railroad tracks and munitions. Peter believes he will be reunited with his family, but it’s not until he and other men in chains overhear two white men eavesdropping on the news of Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation that he is prompted to flee the camp in hopes of making it to Lincoln’s army.
The film is then divided into three acts. The first is a truncated picture of “escape” constructed as a particularly unimaginative prison escape exercise. We spend too much time watching the same tired images of abuse and submission that somehow manage to feel boring rather than agonizing. Then, just as Peter and some of his compatriots are on the run, the movie cuts to a chase scene—only the journey is so drawn out and poorly executed. Watching Will Smith hobble through the swamp for 30 minutes feels like three hours. Even the fact that he intermittently and inconsistently interrupts his family’s trials and tribulations on the plantation he was supposed to leave does little to help the viewer to truly invest in the film’s main drama.
But the final act is the closest the film comes to feeling like a worthy exploration of this era, rather than just an extended, yearning restoration of prestige. Antoine Fuqua comes to life as soon as Peter gets to the union, where what he thought was a simple victory turns out to be something completely different. Now he is a free man, but he is free only in the sense that he is no longer literally a slave, as he has no other choice but to enlist in the army and be sent into winless battles for which white soldiers do not want to risk themselves. . This is a fascinating little chapter. Fukua unleashes the action and films some thrilling battle sequences, appearing more interested and involved behind the camera than the rest of the runtime, while viewers reflect on the complexity of civil war politics and how the North had their own troubling worries with which need to fight.
Unfortunately, there is so little else to sink one’s teeth into. Everything else from any intrigue seems poorly reproduced from other recent works. Ben Foster plays a reluctant slave catcher who could easily be confused with the similar but excellent characters of Christopher Meloni in the canceled WGN series Underground or Joel Edgerton in Barry Jenkins’s miniseries Underground Railroad for Amazon. Bingwa is a fine actress, but she wasn’t given enough screen time for a storyline involving how far she would go to keep her family together to carry the same weight as the countless storylines from the aforementioned TV series or even “12 years a year by Steve McQueen. Slave.”
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