Synopsis – A runaway slave forges through the swamps of Louisiana on a tortuous journey to escape plantation owners that nearly killed him.
My Take – Right from his breakthrough roles in Bad Boys (1995) and Independence Day (1996), Will Smith has been true blue movie star, regardless of his off-screen behavior; of that there can be no doubt. Over the past three decades, Smith has spent time carefully cultivating an image of a nice guy, playing characters that were easy to root for.
Yet, everything changed when he walked on stage during the Oscar 2022 ceremony and slapped Chris Rock, leaving millions of people around the globe astonished over his action. Though he did end up walking away with Best Actor trophy for his performance in King Richard (2021) the same night, Smith also ended up getting banned by the Academy for the next 10 years, a decision he gracefully accepted.
But somehow his first role since that stunning on stage event seems to be designed specifically to get his career and reputation back in line. And what better than to get back into the spotlight by doing a prestige film about the brutality of slavery, something with Oscar bait written all over it.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) and written by William N. Collage, Smith‘s latest film draws inspiration from the infamous “Whipped Peter” photo that was used to bring the atrocities of slavery to the masses, and has since then appeared in many history books.
But though Will Smith himself brings quite a committed lead performance as an enslaved man just trying to get home to his family, while being backed by some stunning cinematography, the film itself is too just blunt and clumsy to make this Apple Original anything more than another rote action/survival flick disguised as a slavery-film. Complete with a ridiculously de-saturated palette and near-silent narrative, the film has delusions of being something as culturally important as Schindler’s List (1993), but is instead more of The Revenant (2015) clone with a fraction of that film’s narrative scope and awesomeness.
Boiled down to two distinct segments: a chase scene and a battlefield, while thrilling to watch, neither segment delivers anything near the emotional heft required for such kind of film to strike a chord. It also doesn’t help that director Fuqua’s approach, both in the relentless grind of graphic cruelty and the grim, makes for a grueling endurance test of a 132 minute viewing experience.
The story follows Peter (Will Smith), an enslaved blacksmith, who is taken away from his current residence on Senator John Lyons’ (Timothy Hutton) Louisiana plantation, away from his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and children to serve at a Confederate Army Labor Camp on a railroad. Expectedly, everyone there is beaten and battered as they work under grueling conditions.
But when he overhears that President Abraham Lincoln has freed the slaves, he escapes the camp, bent on making his way to the Union Army in Baton Rouge. However, in order to do so, he must not only navigate through the treacherous Louisiana swamps but also evade Jim Fassel (Ben Foster), a ruthless slave hunter, and his men, who are relentlessly pursuing him on horseback and with dogs keen to his scent.
The cat and mouse game of life and death between pursuer and runaway takes up more than half of the film’s run time, and most of it sloshes through the swamps of Louisiana. Director Fuqua’s known for his action films, emphasizes the story’s survival/ action aspect, with Peter being resourceful and able to survive violent encounters with alligators and more. Here, director Fuqua and DP Robert Richardson even shoot the film in a unique way, draining the film of much of its color, making it look almost like a black-and-white film with only hints of color.
Unfortunately, the film fails to work as it tries to juggle an assortment of genres like survival thriller, action adventure and Civil War epic to mixed results. Sure, director Fuqua and writer William Collage’s decision to stage the plot as a chase gives it propulsion, but it also eventually robs the larger story of its heft and impact.
The horrors of slavery have been explored multiple times in film, but the overly performative, superficial screenplay fails to elevate and distinguish the unique true story. Even though it is about a real historical figure, you never get a sense of who Peter was as a person beyond his quiet dignity and his devotion to God. But somehow he is able to best a swamp gator with a knife.
Even Fassel is a one-note quiet and uncharismatic white man villain. A few times, the narrative cuts away from Peter to Dodienne and the children, and they’re given such little relevant screen time, you wonder why the scenes weren’t cut entirely. The main frustration comes when, in fleeting moments, we see hints of a better film. At different points, two haunting scenes involve children. One unfolds to the eerie strum of a harp.
In another, a young daughter of a genteel white family calls out runner in fury at the sight of Peter, summoning adults and a shotgun. In comparison, director Fuqua fares best when his swooping camera illustrating the scope and horrors of the war. The final Civil War climax is breathtaking and meticulously staged with cannons, trenches, and plumes of smoke obscuring the very real human bodies that are the cost of this war.
Effectively adopting a Haitian accent, Will Smith delivers a physically committed turn. He embodies Peter’s steely determination, as well as the anger just lurking below the surface. Had this come out a year ago, it no doubt would have gotten a more robust release. Apart from one out-of-place scene where his character inexplicably opens up about his childhood, the role largely requires Ben Foster to be menacing and relentless, something the very capable actor could play in his sleep.
In other roles, Charmaine Bingwa, Imani Pullum, Mustafa Shakir, Timothy Hutton, Gilbert Owuor, Michael Luwoyne, Grant Harvey, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Aaron Moten, Jayson Warner Smith, Jabbar Lewis and Steven Ogg are alright. On the whole, ‘Emancipation’ is a shallow historical action film that struggles tremendously to justify its existence.
Directed – Antoine Fuqua
Rated – R
Run Time – 132 minutes