The fate of Emancipation and its impending success or failure was always going to be, at least in part, tied to how audiences view Will Smith in light of his Oscar night incident. Someone who will dismiss the film outright isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s an added calculus that Apple is working with in bringing the work out here in 2022. Taken just as a work, however, it’s a bit surprising that this is being positioned as an Academy Award player. At times, it has those sorts of elements, but this is closer to an action thriller than a period prestige drama. While worth seeing, it does still feel like a missed opportunity.
Emancipation sometimes seems caught between smaller and more action-oriented ambitions and the more highfalutin nature of prestige cinema. At times, you wonder why the movie is putting you through the paces and veering close to misery porn if it’s not going to make a bigger statement? Then, there will be a moment or scene that evens things out, but it’s a bumpier ride than it really should have been.
This is the story of the 1863 portrait of “Whipped Peter,” a slave named Gordon whose striking image helped to galvanize the North to finally and fully do away with slavery. Here, Gordon is Peter (Smith), living with his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and children on a plantation, until he’s sold to a Confederate Army camp. There, he’s subjected to even more cruelty, under the watchful eye of Jim Fassel (Ben Foster), a man who is an expected in catching runaway slaves. That skill will be put to the test when Peter and some of the slaves escape camp. The plan is to travel for five days and make it to safe ground. Of course, Fassel begins to hunt him, creating a dangerous game of cat and mouse.
With Peter on the run, Fassel is never far behind, picking off other runaways in the process. Peter’s hope is to make it through the swamps of Louisiana to freedom. There, he’ll not only encounter the Union Army in Baton Rouge, as well as be photographed for the famous image, but also join the 1st Louisiana Native Guard for a major battle. Of course, the picture of him, along with his scarred back, will travel the world, spreading his story.
Will Smith does good work here, though not anywhere near the best of his career. There’s a stiffness, both to the character, as well as the Haitian accent, that occasionally holds Smith back. Now, the more the character is active, the better he does, but while it’s a solid performance, he’s not in any danger of scoring back to back Oscars. Ben Foster likewise is good but at his best is given more to do. He’s an icy villain and dedicated to the role, but it would have been nice if there was more meat on the bones of the part for Foster to feast on. In addition to an underused Charmaine Bingwa, the supporting cast includes Paul Ben-Victor, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Steven Ogg, Gilbert Owuor, and more.
Director Antoine Fuqua and scribe Bill Collage are their own worst enemies at times in Emancipation. The film is visually striking, courtesy of Robert Richardson, with the color palate of just one shade off from black and white. Fuqua seems more engaged when there’s action on the screen, including a climactic battle. Collage, on the other hand, has a flimsy script he’s handed him, largely devoid of the internal characterizations that would elevate the material. The duo don’t spend enough time with Peter’s struggles beyond the physical, also shortchanging the politics once they introduce that element in the third act. Plus, cutting away to Bingwa just hurts the momentum of the flick, at minor benefit to the work itself. More scenes work than don’t, but it’s far more scattershot than you’d expect.
Emancipation could have, at its worst, been almost a B movie. At its best, it would have been a surefire Oscar player. Here, we have something caught in between. It’s hardly bad, and in fact, is pretty much a fine film, but it could have been so much more. There’s just not enough there there to warrant more than a minor recommendation. Hopefully Emancipation can stand on its own, good or bad, independent of Smith’s recent history, but that’s for you to decide.