Emancipation Movie Review and Summary

Peter and one of the younger slaves hear one of the masters say that Lincoln had freed the slaves. Peter catches wind of this and it sparks the idea of running.

Emancipation Movie Review and Summary
Will Smith plays the slave Peter in Emancipation. Source: Apple TV +
This post is both a movie review and a summary of Emancipation. That is to say, it contains spoilers.

Emancipation is a 2022 movie about a slave who perseveres a torturous journey through the Louisiana swamplands while escaping his masters who nearly kill him. Peter, played by Will Smith, is a slave who is owned by Captain Lyons, together with his wife and children. Captain Lyons decides to sell him and Peter is forced to leave his family behind.

Building the RailRoad

Peter is taken to a railroad building site where he and some of the other slaves have been sold to. Things there are far worse; the slaves are beaten to a pulp and others are worked to death. Those who dare to run, on the other hand, are hunted like animals and when caught are either brought back to punishment or beheaded and their heads put on spikes.


Peter keeps his faith despite the situation being very difficult. He tries to comfort his fellow slaves with the word of God. One runner who is caught and branded is skeptical of God and says that God does not exist. Peter keeps to his faith and is certain that God is with them.


During one of their daily work routines, Peter and one of the younger slaves hear one of the masters say that Lincoln had freed the slaves. Peter catches wind of this and it sparks the idea of running. He tells the other slaves he is close to this idea and three of them decide to follow him.

The Escape

On a typical day, Peter is instructed to help a slave who has been worked to death, and by help, I mean to throw his body in a pit full of other dead slaves. Peter does as instructed but on taking the shovel, creates a commotion when he attacks the two masters. The slaves get wind of this and everyone runs in a different direction. The slave hunter, Fessel, played by Ben Foster, immediately gets wind of this and starts shooting slaves and deserters haphazardly.

To the Swamps

Peter and his crew get running and they get to the woods. They reach a stream but one of the slaves, the youngest, Tomas, is hesitant to cross. All this while, the slave hunter is on their track together with his two sidekicks on horseback and with dogs leading their search. They catch up with Tomas who's attacked by the hounds and later shot in the back.

To Each Their Own

Peter and his fellow slaves decide to split up to make the search difficult for the slave hunter. Peter realizes he's been shot but quickly goes on running. He gets to a plantation owner's house, drinks some water, and steals a piece of cloth to help cover the wound. Unfortunately, the slave master's daughter sees him and rings a bell while shouting "Runner! Runner!". The slave hunter catches on quickly and the chase continues.

The Gator

Peter at some point has to hide in the swamp. On almost making it out, he is nabbed by an alligator. He struggles with it for a few seconds and is able to kill it with the knife that he has been having all along. He proceeds with his run and gets to a point where he finds some bees, which he harvests honey from, and a canoe. By this time Peter's wound is pretty bad and he tries to weld it with a hot knife.

Baton Rouge

Peter and his fellow slaves have been running trying to get to Baton Rouge to Lincoln's army. Unfortunately, one of the slaves is killed shortly after they reunite with Peter after he is found atop a tree. Peter is all this while meters away inside a tree's bark. He escapes and manages to get to the frontline of the battle. Here he is met by the slave hunter who is taken down by the Native Guard.

The Native Guard

The Native Guard is a battalion of Lincoln's army made of black soldiers, most of whom are former slaves that ran away. On being rescued, Peter joins the Native Guard as he is faced with the choice to either work in the federation farms or fight as part of the Native Guard and hopefully get a chance to rescue his family. During this time also is when a photo is taken of his back, full of whip scars.

The Battles to Come

Peter and the Native Guard go to war at the frontline and face huge cannons and an enemy force that is waiting for them. Many of them do not make it but Peter and his friend (the other slave he ran with) push on and the Native Guard finally wins the battle.


The Native Guard and Lincoln's army push on and get to Captain Lyons' homestead where they free the slaves and kill the captain. Peter cannot find his family and as he swings his head in despair, catches sight of them at a distance. They run to each other, hug, kiss, and kneel down for a prayer to thank God. The End.

Our Rating

Emancipation is a painful watch, no doubt. It speaks to the terror of slavery and how badly slaves were treated in the late 19th Century. Will Smith's portrayal of Peter is beyond anything you could imagine he could do and he does such a good job you might never be able to see him the same again. We rate the movie a solid 8.5/10, for the touching and well-told painful story of slavery it tells. Be sure to watch it but maybe not with the younger ones. It may be distressing to them.


Is Emancipation Based on a True Story?

Yes. 'Whipped Peter', real name Gordon, was a slave who ran and joined the Native Guard in the mid-1800s. The movie is inspired by an 1863 photograph of a slave's scared back due to whipping. The photo was referred to as 'Whipped Peter", and is attributed to McPherson and Oliver.

How Long is the Movie Emancipation?

Emancipation is 2 hours and 12 minutes long.

Is Emancipation Based on Actual History?

Yes. The movie is based on the 1860s when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. The proclamation was issued on 1st January 1863, sparking the escape of over 400,000 slaves, including men and women. Slavery officially ended in two years later, on December 1865 when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.

Who Directed Emancipation?

Emancipation was directed by Antoine Fuqua.