Emancipation, which hits Apple TV from Dec. 9, might be about one slave’s fight and his sprint to freedom through the Louisiana swamplands – but audiences will be watching or not for one reason, and one reason only – Will Smith.
The movie star has been deserted by film studios, seen projects cancelled, and suffered untold humiliations since that slap, a fact which means any roles which survived the cull will come under fire more than usual. On this occasion, that means a visually exquisite civil war drama, where Smith is trying to convince the public that his acting chops – if not his public persona – remain intact. However, on the basis of this collaboration with respected director Antoine Fuqua, Emancipation will likely leave many people undecided.
The first problem with the film comes down to story, where a very thinly-drawn introduction for Smith’s Peter and his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) is barely given room to breathe. Within minutes of their family being introduced, where Smith test drives his French accent and earnest demeanor, audiences watch as he is separated from them and shipped off.
Unconscious and slumped inside a cage, his transportation is peppered with mindless acts of cruelty against others, whether that means vicious beatings or ritualistic branding. Severed heads adorn spikes on the way to his latest encampment, where a railroad is being built for military advantage. This setting sits in opposition to the pristine black-and-white canvas which is subtly injected with splashes of color, while every white man extols the virtues of slavery and acts like a savage.
These blinkered archetypes who do nothing but inflict injury, degrade those of color, and seem devoid of humanity undermine the overall message. Anyone who has seen Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, or Barry Jenkins Underground Railroad, will know that this era possessed exceptions to the rule – those men and women who sought to treat people under their charge with compassion. Within Emancipation, there is no depth of character to illustrate that, nor any attempts to enrich the film through their introduction.
Once Peter has escaped, and tracker Jim Fassel (Ben Foster) is in hot pursuit, only then does anything approaching character work start to emerge. Heading across Louisiana swampland with Fassel on horseback, Peter proves himself savvier than those who decided to join him, as one by one they are found and executed. However, predictable crocodile attacks, old-fashioned Southern prejudice, and disease-ridden waters take their toll.
Apart from some genuinely breathtaking cinematography from Robert Richardson (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), a brief monologue which gives Fassel some definition, and a majestic score from Marcelo Zavros (American Gigolo), this story offers nothing new until later on, as Smith tries so hard to convince audiences that there is something much more important going on.
With an exceptional level of arthouse cinematography proving to be its only saving grace, Emancipation feels like a star vehicle rather than something of substance. There is no denying the honorable intentions of all concerned to tell a compelling story, but this only happens toward the end when a slow tracking shot reveals the disfiguring injuries which riddle Peter’s back.
In that moment, everything about this film snaps into focus, as artifice is replaced by accountability. Inhumanity comes no more inhumane than when etched into the flesh of an innocent. An intelligent and compassionate man who had committed no other crime than being borne a different color, when such things condemned him to servitude.
Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of Emancipation, upon which this entire true story hinges, gets barely a moment of screentime, beyond honorable mentions which bookend the film. When Peter finally reaches his destination and gets conscripted into an army for use as cannon fodder, it becomes apparent that freedom still eludes him. Charging enemy guns armed with nothing but bayonets and muskets, hundreds of his fellow man are caught in crossfire.
That the most engaging part of Emancipation happens in its final 15 minutes says much about what came before. Unfortunately, Smith’s would-be comeback vehicle is hamstrung by a weak script, paper-thin characters, and gets caught too often being overly earnest rather than emotionally honest, something that ultimately taints the integrity of the endeavor and will leave audiences disappointed.
'Emancipation' is a shot at redemption for Will Smith, when that slap still stings for too many people. This visually stunning film from director Antoine Fuqua suffers from a weak script, poor characterization and an overly earnest approach to the subject matter. For something so important, a sense of substance seems in short supply.