To tell the story of Emancipation, director Antoine Fuqua and cinematographer Robert Richardson were influenced by the colors in the famous photo “Whipped Peter,” whose story and the photograph of his scarred back is still one of the most famous photos documenting the brutality of slavery today. They chose to desaturate the images to a sepia-tone with just hints of color. Antoine also felt the lack of color reflected the world of a slave- it’s bleak and hopeless, and he wanted the film to look beautiful but brutal. The Louisiana swamps Peter must navigate through as he escapes also looked more eerie and otherworldly with a lack of color.
Antoine says he and Bob spent a lot of time discussing the film, designing shots, laying out storyboards, and going over the story more than with any other cinematographer he worked with. Antoine wanted Emancipation to show that a movie about slavery could also be a taut, entertaining thriller. They both wanted to create an action movie with sustained intensity throughout, but at its heart, Bob saw the film as a love story about a man fighting against insurmountable obstacles, on the run to get back to his family. They decided to show the caring Peter has for his family in the opening scene of the film, as Peter gently washes his wife’s feet.
Bob chose to use long, sweeping one shots to build the tension throughout the film, rather than relying on quick cutting. This allowed the tension to build as the slaves run away into the swamps. He and Antoine didn’t do multiple takes or alternate shots if they didn’t think they needed it. Antoine created tension within the railroad camp scenes with many layers of action- it wasn’t necessarily what was going on right in front of Will Smith’s character, but also what was happening to the men and overseers behind him.
As a director, Antoine always wanted to work with Bob Richardson, but at first Bob said no to shooting Emancipation. Bob says that as a white man, he didn’t really feel comfortable making a story about race. Antoine points out that most human beings could feel compassion for someone else’s story, and slavery exists across races. Though it wasn’t Bob’s personal history, Emancipation was telling the story of our history in America.
Antoine Fuqua and Robert Richardson are currently shooting a second project together.
Find Antoine Fuqua: Instagram @antoinefuqua
Find Robert Richardson: Instagram @robertbrichardson
Emancipation can be streamed on Apple TV+.
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