Will Smith’s brutal drama brought down by bad decisions

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over a decade ago, Will Smith turned down the lead role in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, stating that “I really wanted to make that movie, but I felt like the only way was that it had to be a love story, not a revenge story.” With antoine fuqua‘s Emancipation, Smith moves a little closer to this vision, in this story based on the life of runaway slave Gordon, also known as “Battered Peter.” Smith plays Peter, a slave who is separated from his wife Dodienne (charmaine champion) and children and forced to work on the railway. When Peter hears that Abraham Lincoln has freed the slaves and that Lincoln’s army is nearby in Baton Rouge, Peter and a handful of other slaves try to escape, running through the Louisiana swamp as they try to reach freedom. Making this journey even more difficult is Fassel (ben foster), who hunts down runaway slaves with his pack of dogs, a ruthless reminder of the terrible cruelty dispensed during this period. Peter fights to get to Lincoln’s men not only for his own freedom, but also so he can free his family.

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“Whipped Peter” eventually became known for an image that circulated in 1863, showing Peter’s back covered in lashes, putting a face on the atrocities committed during this period. Through Emancipation, Fuqua almost wants to make the public feel each of these scars. Fuqua often towers over the slaves working or the battles being fought, showing the full scale of this situation and recalling the battle sequences from Saving Private Ryan. However, with bondage scenes, this is not a random occurrence, these are everyday terrors that are becoming more and more common. It is an admirable attempt to present the nightmares that were happening throughout our country during this period.

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Fuqua works with the cinematographer Robert Richardson (who was also nominated for an Oscar for his work on django unchained), who shoots the film in bleak, muted black and white, only occasionally interrupted by the dull red of fires or spilling blood. Very similar luke montpellierthe recent work of women talkingthis approach seems to be a way of showing how muffled the world around our characters has become, how even when great joy is found, the world has already diminished too much for this to make a difference.

Will Smith and Ben Foster in Emancipation
Image via AppleTV+

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It’s also hard not to admire Smith’s performance here, his first role since winning an Oscar for king richard (and, of course, her first role since everything else that happened at those Academy Awards.) For an actor who has relied so heavily on his charisma in many of his roles, Emancipation it requires Smith to remain silent and still, filled with anger that is about to erupt, but with a faith that helps him turn away from this righteous anger. Smith is given a few moments that clearly feel like the Biggest Oscar Montage Moment, but he’s at his best when he reacts quietly to his situation and surroundings.

But despite all his intentions and unusual choices, Emancipation suffocates under a wooden script full of banality, a director who doesn’t know how to maintain the momentum of this story and clichés that border on parody. Emancipation it’s a story that requires a certain amount of care and presentation that Fuqua just doesn’t have. While Fuqua, who has worked primarily in action for the past decade with movies like the equalizer Y Infinite—knows how to make the most action-oriented scenes captivating, she strives to make this story just as compelling in its quieter moments.

emancipation-film-2
Image via Apple TV+

Similarly, the script bill collage (who has written films as varied as Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, starring New York Minute Y assassin’s Creed), is clumsy and awkward at all times. Fortunately, Smith’s performance can often save lines that sound hackneyed and clichéd from other movies we’ve seen before of its kind. Structurally, Emancipation it also feels awkward, as if the many sequences inside the swamp could be interchanged with any other scene, with little consequence, with the rare scene of Peter’s family to remind the audience what he’s fighting for. Even Richardson’s cinematography feels like a poor choice, as if it’s boring Collage’s script, which is already bordering on boredom.

This is a compelling story because of the truth behind it and the reality that Peter fought for, not because of how the filmmakers are telling this story. It seems clear that Fuqua and Collage want to highlight the inhumanity that existed in this lawless land upon their departure, and the spirit, strength, and faith that Peter and people like Peter clung to to overcome this living hell. Although the brutality is seemingly endless, we are never bored by the constant barrage of pain, both physical and emotional. However, when Fuqua and Collage fail to focus on the cruelty of this world, the film stops dead in its tracks, lumbering through the motions, complete with spin-off choices, characters, and dialogue. EmancipationUnfortunately, it always feels like it’s only a few reworks away from being a riveting movie about this monstrous period in American history.

Classification: C.

Emancipation opens in select theaters December 2 and will be available to stream on Apple TV+ starting December 9.