Emancipation (Review) – Not The Win That Will Smith Needs Right Now

DIRECTOR: Antoine Fuqua

CAST: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Steven Ogg, Charmaine Bingwa, Gilbert Owuor, Mustafa Shakir, Grant Harvey, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Timothy Hutton, Jabbar Lewis, Michael Luwoye, Aaron Moten, Imani Pullum

RUNNING TIME: 132 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: A slave (Smith) makes a daring escape from his Southern plantation to the safer North…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

It should have been the best night of Will Smith’s life. He was the frontrunner, and the eventual winner, to finally receive an Oscar for his outstanding work in King Richard – but then, as we all know, things went south when Chris Rock took to the stage. Now, with a ten-year ceremony ban in place, and his subsequent resignation from the Academy, Smith’s reputation has taken its own slap in the face, so much so that his other awards season vehicle, director Antoine Fuqua’s historical thriller Emancipation, had until recently been the subject of speculation over whether distributor Apple would still release the film this year in the wake of what happened.

Of course, the film ended up being released anyway (otherwise this review wouldn’t exist), but therein lies another dilemma: would critics and audiences be able to remove the real-life drama from their minds, in order to give this movie a fair chance? In many ways, it should be a no-brainer, but as we saw earlier this year with Don’t Worry Darling sometimes it’s difficult to separate the gossip from the material, so there will undoubtedly be people who critique Emancipation with direct mention to Smith’s actions at the Oscars (hell, I’m guilty of that just from these opening paragraphs alone).

As for me, I will do my best from here on to simply judge Emancipation based on its own merits rather than the mistakes of its lead star (which, while regrettable, are far from the worst thing a Hollywood actor has done), but the problem is that the movie actually doesn’t have a lot of merits to speak of outside of Smith himself. While the actor is certainly doing his best, he’s let down by material that is, sad to say, a rather hollow and weightless bit of blatant awards-baiting.

The film is set during the American Civil War, where a Haitian-born slave named Peter (Smith) is taken from his family to work on a Confederate labour camp in Louisiana. He soon learns of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which for those who don’t know their history declared all slaves to be free, so he promptly makes a daring escape from the grasp of his brutal handlers, including the particularly nasty tracker Fassel (Ben Foster), and heads towards a nearby Union post in Baton Rouge. Pursued by Fassel and his small posse of trackers, Peter must trek through the Louisiana swamps and survive everything from gunshot wounds to wild alligator attacks if he’s to have any chance of making it to freedom, and maybe also liberate and reunite with his family in the process.

The film is based on an important piece of history – Peter was an actual slave known as “Whipped Peter”, whose photo of his scarred back became a leading anti-slavery image – but it seems that Fuqua and writer William N. Collage stopped at the word “important” and decided that was enough to carry itself to the finish line. Unfortunately, just because the subject is important and historically significant doesn’t mean that you automatically have a good movie; you have to develop characters you can easily root for or against, come up with intriguing drama that holds the viewer’s attention, and ultimately feel like it’s saying something that doesn’t feel like it’s been said many times before. Fuqua and Collage aren’t able to tick many of those boxes here, because the characters are frustratingly one-dimensional – Peter is a bland protagonist who the viewer never really gets to know, while the vast majority of the Southern villains are practically N-word spewing cartoons and nothing more – there are very few themes being explored in significant detail, and it does or says things about the barbaric nature of slavery that aren’t dissimilar to far better movies about the subject like 12 Years A Slave. It’s an empty film as a result, clinging so hard to its own sense of self-importance that it actually forgets to be a compelling and thought-provoking movie in its own right.

The writing isn’t the only aspect of Emancipation that’s black-and-white, as the cinematography – provided by industry legend Robert Richardson – is so drab and monochrome that it might as well be a black-and-white movie, despite there technically being colour in each frame. It’s an ugly film to look at, but while that may be intentional so as to match the bleak tone – after all, nobody wants to see slaves being tortured in glorious Technicolour – it also makes the visuals very uninteresting, and makes you wish that there was some kind of colour palette on offer so as to make some of the admittedly striking shots stand out a lot more than they do, thanks to how grey and depressing it looks. It’s the kind of cinematography that’s clearly aiming to be more like The Revenant than, say, Django Unchained (which Richardson also shot), but those movies at least had a lot more colour to work with, and were often beautiful with how well they incorporated even the drabber shots into their imagery, whereas there’s very little substance to be found in Emancipation’s visual department.

Because the characters aren’t interesting enough, and because it’s both an unengaging film both stylistically and substantially, Emancipation ends up being a rather long sit. For two hours and twelve minutes, you’re watching an endless display of brutal violence, miserable drama, and Will Smith trying his hardest to work with the thin material, but rarely do you ever feel engaged in any of it, no matter how noble the intentions may have been. While it’s a disappointing misfire for the filmmakers, it’s perhaps even more so for Smith who, again, is perhaps banking on this movie being the one to bring him back into the fold following his pretty bad year in the spotlight. Sadly for him, Emancipation has problems that are far greater than the fact that he’s starring in it (if anything, though, his performance is one of the better parts of the film), so it’ll take a little while longer for him to properly come leaping back into the hearts of Hollywood with something to properly remind everyone of why he was the Oscar frontrunner at that ill-fated ceremony to begin with.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Emancipation is a disappointingly hollow awards-baiting exercise, riding on the coattails of its own historical importance rather than developing any interesting characters or drama, and accompanied by some ugly cinematography that also makes it visually uninteresting to look at, which despite a committed lead turn by Will Smith fails to engage the viewer as much as it honestly should.

Emancipation is now available on Apple TV+.

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