“I was a white man and unsure that I was the best choice to make a film about slavery, [also] nighttime and swamps are pretty forbidden in terms of access to technology — the film shot almost entirely in the swamps of Louisiana, and there was so much abuse, and I did not know that I would feel comfortable filming such a sensitive story,” he says.
This film is inspired by “Whipped Peter,” a photograph from 1863 of a former slave who escaped and joined the Union Army — the photo focuses on his back, crisscrossed with keloids and scars starkly illustrating the horrors of slavery. The photo was widely circulated and helped turn sentiment against slavery.
Will Smith plays Peter, the slave who spends days trying to outrun his captors through the dangerous, alligator-infested swamps of Louisiana. His goal is simple: to be reunited with his family.
The film, Richardson says, is highly spiritual. Peter, he explains, is a man who has been tortured and is treated as an animal, but he holds on to his love for his family. “Emancipation” opens with an intimate scene of Peter washing the feet of his wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa). Surrounding them are his family.
“The reality of telling a highly spiritual story is exactly what that scene is about. It’s the language they use and the simplicity of the look in their eyes,” Richardson says. “You feel his foundation through the film.”
Spirituality is contrasted with the brutality of slavery. This prompted another conversation between Fuqua and Richardson — how much to show and in what way to show it?
“We realized that we need to shoot these moments because they are the driving factor for return,” says Richardson. A sequence in which Peter sees small dots in the sky as he calls back to his family was shot using an “extraordinary wide angle, almost a fisheye lens, looking at the family, moving around the lens and seeing small dots in the sky, which are fireflies, but you don’t need to know that.”
Dodienne is faced with a moment of self-sacrifice when she refuses to be taken away and sold to be a bride to someone else. Richardson explains, without spoiling the moment, “You have to applaud the writer in this aspect about the brutality and when the brutality of what she had to do to herself to stop it.”
Richardson’s biggest challenge? “Rain and COVID. We moved between sun and shade and clouds and storms. We also started late in the day because we had one hour of COVID testing daily. You’re looking at a 10 a.m. start to your day. We had no interiors, so I had to embrace the noon light that sits there until 4 p.m. I embraced it via the story. The light has to work with the narrative. I said to myself, ‘You’re going to make a film about the brutality that took place and that does not include sunsets and sunrises.’”
Fuqua and Richardson decided the only way to make the movie was to shoot it “as close to black and white as possible so that we didn’t walk into a Hallmark representation,” the DP says.
Richardson would spend time grading the dailies, getting them to just have hints of color at times. “Those were enhanced to some degree to work with the rhythm of the cut and when it was introduced and when it wasn’t. That’s where it began,” he says. “Every single take has to be graded, and that allowed us to look at it and make choices.”
In the opening drone shots, Richardson popped in color. “We put a little more green into the swamps,” he says.
Color really comes into play in the film’s final battle sequence, with the stark hues of the Confederate flag, the Union banner and blood. “Red pushed you forward. It’s blood from bodies — Black bodies. Part of that red in the flag is representative of what was being sacrificed on that day,” Richardson says.