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A Hollow Proclamation From Will Smith And Director Antoine Fuqua

Jan 20, 2023

“I didn’t want to make a slavery film about vengeance,” Will Smith told GQ in 2021 to explain his much-lamented decision to turn down the title role in “Django Unchained.” “This was one that was about love,” he continued to explain why he finally felt he could make a film about slavery. After years of avoiding cinematic portrayals of this dark chapter in African-American life, that project is Antoine Fuqua’s “Emancipation.”
READ MORE: ‘Emancipation’: Will Smith “Completely Understands” If People Aren’t Ready To Support Him But Hopes New Film Is Still Embraced
The task he set out to achieve is more complicated than it might initially appear. Vengeance is clear. It has a subject, object, and consequences. Love is a more amorphous force. It’s tougher to pin down and harder to qualify and quantify. The energy transfer from the giver to the receiver is not always equal. Whatever love Smith felt or brought to “Emancipation” does not break through in this tale of a man trying to secure his freedom, be it by fleeing slavery and taking up arms against the Confederacy.
It’s immediately apparent, too, that he’s trying to do something different than his other performances in the film. As the famous “Whipped Peter,” the subject of a galvanizing photo of the brutal scarring from repeated whipping, Smith abandons his typically bubbly screen presence even more so than in serious turns like “The Pursuit of Happyness” or “Concussion.” He’s solemn to the point of outright stoicism, treating the man he inhabits like some kind of hallowed saint too dignified for him to soil with his own personality. Smith is so sedate that he’s somnambulatory in “Emancipation,” an empty void in the middle of the film. It’s as if the actor gives audiences his study for the character, not the character itself.
Unlike the blank slate presented by, say, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave,” Smith’s Peter does not provide a conduit to understanding slavery as physical practice or social institution. With the exception of his pivotal decisions to run away from the plantation or fight to make the promise of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ring true, Peter is the very figure Smith has feared playing his entire career. He’s a passive figure receiving a spiritual charge to see his family through to freedom together, a supernatural element the film handles with all the grace of a PureFlix project preaching to the choir.
Peter constantly responds to the forces besetting him, but he’s rarely given the sense to show agency. He’s a reactive character, defined by his evasion of slave catcher Jim Fassel (Ben Foster, similarly subdued) in the swamps of Louisiana. Smith just has little idea how to play someone stripped of any illusion of their control after making a career out of indelible self-determining men. Time and again, he mistakes sanctimony for soulfulness as he exalts rather than embodies Peter.
For better or worse, the film avoids transforming a dramatic character transformation for Peter when he finally links up with the Union Army. Even as Bill Collage’s script takes an unexpected veer toward a rousing, “Glory”-esque climax, Peter remains stolid as ever as the military fails to provide the salvation he needs. His quiet presence is a constant in “Emancipation,” just like the miserably desaturated black palette of cinematographer Robert Richardson. (The film’s lighting makes the grays of late-period Clint Eastwood look overexposed.)
Fuqua can’t quite manage the film’s tonal swing as it shifts from escape thriller to war epic, but then again, there’s not really much of a tone in “Emancipation” from which to diverge. The film just plods along, no thanks to Smith, plainly and plaintively. Fuqua uses the color— or lack thereof — as simple shorthand to establish the grimness of the Civil War South but brings little else to bear. There’s definitely intentionality in avoiding trauma porn in depicting the brutality of slavery. Yet all the restraint proves good for is a staccato medley of unprovoked indignities flaring up for periodic reminders of plantation owners’ capacity for pain.
So where is the love? “Emancipation” may be well-intentioned, but you can find it only in the most obvious of reunifications between characters separated by a barbarous institution. Like America itself, the film skims the surface of a reconstruction that seeks to neutralize and negate the calcified forces of hatred responsible for such separation. Fuqua’s film confuses the absence of cruel, sadistic violence inflicted against anyone caught up in the maelstrom of slavery for the presence of love. But that is not love, and it is also certainly not cinema. [C-]

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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