For Apple TV+’s Emancipation, based on the true story of an enslaved man (played by Will Smith) known as “Whipped Peter,” director Antoine Fuqua and cinematographer Robert Richardson approached the look from the perspective of those who were enslaved: “Beautiful but brutal, in an honest way,” in the words of Fuqua, who adds: “The film is about resilience. It’s about love, it’s about faith.”
As the film begins, Richardson’s camera glides over the Louisiana swamps — Peter’s path to freedom. Fuqua recalls, as the three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer was testing looks, “Bob went out and shot different stuff with his camera. That opening shot going over the water was one of the style of images Bob sent me. And I just said, ‘That’s it. That’s the look.’ ”
Continues Fuqua: “This is God’s world. It’s beautiful until man does what they do to each other,” adding that the beauty is reflected in brief moments, including one in which Peter contemplates the majesty of his surroundings. “But then at the same time, [there’s] a lack of color because if you are a slave, the world is bleak,” he notes of the imagery, a unique black-and-white look that contains hints of color. “It was forced labor. It was a horrible, horrible thing to do to a human being, to have your children ripped away from you [to be] treated [like you are] less than an animal. As I talked more to Bob about it, I just couldn’t see the color in it — but it’s not for lack of hope.”
The color highlights, Robertson says, were inspired by “the actual photograph that I first saw of Peter. … I wanted it to be in sync with what [Peter] was going through.”
Plans initially called for production to take place in Georgia, but Fuqua says the decision was made to move from the state “because of voting suppression. It didn’t feel right.”
Adds Richardson: “I think I was there for two months. When that vote came in, Antoine said no. We had great locations. We were all set to start the film. And his perspective was so strong that Antoine, Will and Apple all agreed: Move it, and take the hit.”
The Louisiana shoot also had its own challenges. “When we first talked about the film, I didn’t want to make it from the perspective of my fear of snakes, which is intense,” Richardson admits. But he also acknowledges his reservations about shooting in a swamp. “Swamps are absolutely not acceptable in respect to moving the equipment we have to move. It took a lot of effort to come up with the path in the movie. It was truly treacherous.”
There was also Ida, the 2021 hurricane that shut down production. When they returned, there were new obstacles. Richardson cites as an example the location for the early scene when Peter is taken from his family: “What we looked at was something entirely different from where we started. But there’s a sadness that took place in terms of the look of the locations that added to the poignancy of the visuals.”
This story first appeared in a Jan. stand-alone issue of The News84Media magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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