Emancipation movie review: Will Smith’s comeback film disappoints

Will Smith in "Emancipation," premiering December 9, 2022 on Apple TV+.
Will Smith in "Emancipation," premiering December 9, 2022 on Apple TV+. /

Will Smith is making his on-screen comeback, months after slapping Chris Rock in the face at the Academy Awards. There has been lots of chatter online regarding how “soon” Emancipation‘s release is, and I’ll only comment on the following: Smith has expressed great remorse for his actions and has made a lengthy video in which he describes what happened.

I’m ready to see him back on the screen again. He’s one of the best actors working today, and his Oscar-winning performance in King Richard solidifies him as one of the biggest stars in movie history. It’s a shame that it got overshadowed by his actions at the Oscars, which brought lots of (justified) public scrutiny and caused him to be banned from any Academy-related event for ten years.

Regardless of these events, Apple is pushing Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation as a major awards contender, and they would be right to do so. The streamer beat Netflix at this year’s Oscars, with CODA winning Best Picture over Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which was the heavy favorite to win. However, it’s unfortunate that, amidst the behind-the-camera talent and star power of Will Smith, the movie can’t help but be a hollow and overtly generic misfire.

Emancipation can’t rise up to the level of dramatic power it needs to be

Smith stars as Peter, a slave whose infamous picture of his “scourged back” was a catalyst for the abolitionist movement, and chronicles his escape from a plantation to his time in the Union Army. Slave catcher Fassel (Ben Foster), who attempts to track him with his dogs, hunts him as Peter tries to mask his scent in the swamp. He is trying to reach his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and free her and his children from the plantation they are forced to work on.

Smith’s performance is the highlight of the movie. He brings great emotional restraint to Peter, and conveys most of his anguish through his facial expressions. There’s a lot of baggage inside Peter’s head that he will not express directly, but we know exactly how he feels by looking at him, and how he interacts in the environment he tries to escape from.

He is the film’s center of attention, and as much as Fuqua and screenwriter William N. Collage try to balance it out by cutting to Dodienne, it always goes back to Peter. Bingwa is decent enough as Peter’s wife but is underused. The rest of the performers aren’t as good as Smith, especially Foster, whose character is bogged down by terrible writing, filled with clichés and exploitative violence.

There’s no reason for the movie to be as senseless as it depicts violence. Even worse, the film turns the harrowing true story of “Whipped Peter” into an action blockbuster, disregarding the history of trauma associated with slavery and the heavy emotional toll it takes to depict slavery with a modicum of dignity without reverting to sensationalism, as Nate Parker did in the dreadful The Birth of a Nation.

It paints Peter as a character with superhuman strength, able to fight off an alligator with his bare hands and single-handedly surviving the horrors of war by running to the cannons while everyone around him gets brutally shot. He gets that “power” from an implied divine intervention, but it still feels completely senseless, as if we’re watching something else instead of a thoughtful drama on one of the most harrowing events that preceded the abolitionist movement.

It doesn’t help that the film looks terrible. Robert Richardson is usually a great cinematographer, able to craft stunning frames and compositions, but he misses the boat here. Its color palette, teetering on the edge of black and white and washed-out colors, is stylistically muddled and does not help the film in any way. At times, it feels like it’s in black-and-white, but there’s a hint of color that makes the frame feel completely uneven, and the long, drawn-out drone shots feel idyllic for a film with a gut-wrenching subject matter.

Because of this, Emancipation can’t rise up to the level of dramatic power similar films (such as Jonathan Demme’s Beloved, Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave) were able to. Its presentation of Peter’s path to freedom feels terribly misguided, and doesn’t help that its pace is terribly languishing, with poorly written dialogue and gratuitous violence that resembles the likes of an exploitation film.

I am actively rooting for Will Smith’s success in a post-“slap” world. We all make mistakes in life, some more than others. What matters is how we bounce back from these mistakes and grow as human beings. I truly hope that Smith will be able to bounce back, but as much as he tries to make the film work here, his incredible performance sadly doesn’t save the film from being a senseless and exploitative mess.

Emancipation is now available to stream on Apple TV+. 

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