Will Smith’s Brutal Drama Brought Down by Poor Choices

Jan 5, 2023

Over a decade ago, Will Smith famously turned down the title role in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, stating that “I wanted to make that movie so badly, but I felt the only way was, it had to be a love story, not a vengeance story.” With Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation, Smith gets a bit closer to this vision, in this story based on the life of the escaped slave Gordon, also known as “Whipped Peter.” Smith plays Peter, a slave who is separated from his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and children and forced to work on the railroad. 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 attempt to escape, running through the Louisiana swamp as they try to make their way to freedom. Making this journey even more difficult is Fassel (Ben Foster), who hunts runaway slaves with his pack of dogs, a vicious reminder of the horrific cruelty that was dispensed during this period. Peter fights to get to Lincoln’s men not only for his own freedom, but so that he can eventually get his family to freedom as well.

“Whipped Peter” was eventually known for a picture that was circulated in 1863, which showed Peter’s back covered in lashes, putting a face to the atrocities committed during this period. Through Emancipation, Fuqua almost wants to make the audience feel each of these scars. Fuqua often soars over slaves working or battles being fought, showing the full scale of this situation, and bringing to mind battle sequences from Saving Private Ryan. Yet with the slavery scenes, this isn’t some random occurrence, this is everyday terrors that are becoming more and more commonplace. It’s an admirable attempt to present the nightmares that were happening throughout our country during this period.

Fuqua works with cinematographer Robert Richardson (who also was Oscar-nominated for his work on Django Unchained), who shoots the film in a bleak, muted black-and-white, which is only occasionally punctuated by the dull red of fires burning or blood spilling. Much like Luc Montpellier’s recent work in Women Talking, this approach seems to be as a way to show just how deadened the world around our characters has become, how even when great joy is found, the world has already been diminished too much for this to make a difference.

Image via AppleTV+

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It’s also hard not to admire Smith’s performance here, his first role since winning the Oscar for King Richard (and, of course, his first role since everything else that happened at that Academy Awards). For an actor that has been so reliant on his charisma in many of his roles, Emancipation requires Smith to be silent and still, full of anger that is ready to burst, but with a faith that helps move him away from this righteous rage. Smith is given a few moments that clearly feel like the Big Oscar Montage Moment, but he’s at his best when he’s quietly reacting to his situation and surroundings.

But for all its intentions and unusual choices, Emancipation suffocates under a wooden script full of banality, a director who doesn’t know how to keep the momentum of this story going, and cliches that border on parody. Emancipation is a story that requires a certain amount of care and presentation that Fuqua just doesn’t have. While Fuqua—who has mostly worked in action over the last decade with films like The Equalizer and Infinite—does know how to make the more action-oriented scenes captivating, he struggles to make this story equally as compelling in the quieter moments.

Image via Apple TV+

Similarly, the screenplay from Bill Collage (who has written films as varied as the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen-starring New York Minute and Assassin’s Creed), is clunky and awkward throughout. Thankfully, Smith’s performance can often save lines that sound hackneyed and cliché from the other films we’ve seen of this ilk before. Structurally, Emancipation also feels awkward, as if the many sequences within the swamp could be swapped out 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 dulling Collage’s already borderline dull script.

This is a compelling story because of the truth behind it, and the reality of what Peter fought for, not because of how the filmmakers are telling this story. It seems clear that Fuqua and Collage want to spotlight the inhumanity that existed in this lawless land on its way out, and the spirit, strength, and faith that Peter and people like Peter latched onto in order to make it through this living hell. Even though the brutality is seemingly never-ending, we never dull to the constant barrage of pain—both physically and emotionally. Yet when Fuqua and Collage aren’t focusing on the cruelty of this world, the film stops dead, lumbering through the motions, complete with derivative choices, characters, and dialogue. Emancipation, unfortunately, always seems like it’s just a few alterations away from being a fascinating film about this monstrous period in American history.

Rating: C

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

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