'Emancipation' review: Will Smith can't save glossy slave drama
Courtesy of Apple TV+
Even in a post Oscar slap world, “Emancipation” wasn’t always destined to be great. It’s a tough subject matter that needs painstaking care and understanding to come across with a sense of authenticity. There are moments throughout Antoine Fuqua’s slavery drama, including a monologue about how slave traders are worried their existence could become compromised in a direct parallel of the “white replacement theory” that’s become a major (and terrifying) talking point among hard right conservatives, that highlight the trials and tribulations of this country’s greatest sin. But too often, “Emancipation” can’t carry the weight of its material nor can Will Smith, his first feature after the controversial Oscar moment, conjure much to keep this from being another tacky and glossy Hollywood entry with its priorities all over the place.
Based on a true story and set during the Civil War, Smith plays Peter, perhaps known in history books as “Whipped Peter,” an escaped slave whose disfigured back with multiple scars was one of the first photographs that showcased slavery’s brutality to the world. It helped people understand how immoral and reprehensible we had become as a society to let it happen. Fuqua, along with screenwriter Bill Collage, outline a non-fictional though heavily dramatized spin on Peter’s story. The movie abruptly opens with him being ripped away from his family (Peter’s wife is played by Charmaine Bingwa though she’s underused and underwritten) and being sold to a rural plantation in the south.
For a while, “Emancipation” sticks to the historical context at its disposal, the real Peter ended up escaping his captors and made a break for Baton Rouge, Louisiana where he would serve for the Union Army, be granted freedom, and return home to his family. All while being chased by ravenous bloodhounds and hunters. But since this is a film that also needs high-stakes drama, the script, for reasons I may never comprehend, features an alligator brawl midway through the movie. I’m sure Peter encountered a fair share of creatures on his hellacious journey towards salvation, but the inclusion of this sequence is sort of cartoonish. As does Ben Foster’s performance as Jim Fassel, the slave trader tasked with hunting Peter throughout the movie. Aside from that aforementioned monologue, Foster seems as though he’s in a completely different movie with line delivery bordering on camp. Not the vibe you want to give when dealing within the boundaries of a serious drama about, er, slavery.
Shot in desaturated colors that grow brighter the closer Peter gets to the front lines of the army, and when he finally reaches his destination is where “Emancipation” stumbles the most. While its honest rendition towards the Civil War is certainly welcome and has guided amazing films like “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained,” its revelations come so late in the picture, none of it registers. You’d also assume the scene where Peter is photographed would have some emotional heft, but it lands with a giant thud. It feels like a checkmark Fuqua had to capture because he knows it’s the one moment audiences expect. Smith turns in a fine performance and the filmmakers showcase a bleak worldview with an array of stunning aerial shots (a battle sequence towards the end occasionally gets the blood pumping), but “Emancipation” never rises to the breadth of Peter’s story, choosing style over substance.
EMANCIPATION is now streaming on Apple TV+