In the lead-up to this film, star/producer Will Smith has noted how Emancipation is not a film about slavery but one about freedom. With the many historical films based around American slavery, I am happy to welcome ambitious new takes on what they can offer. Casting one of the most famous movie stars in the world as the man who was the subject of one of the most famous photos ever taken is an exciting prospect. A more cerebral film could have even found a way to reflect what new forms slavery has taken in the time that has since passed when considering what people believe celebrities owe them. Sadly, as far-fetched as that may sound, it’s at least an idea compared to what this film delivers. While commendable for its depiction of brutality, there’s little present allowing this film to function as much more than an overlong action film with little to say about its important context.
Set in 1863, during the Civil War, Smith stars as Peter, an enslaved man who has been taken away from his family but has strong beliefs God will keep him safe. Upon hearing among the enslavers that Abraham has declared freedom for all slaves, Peter sparks a mass escape, leading him to the swamps of Louisiana, where he hopes to stay ahead of his captors. Ben Foster’s Fassel is among those looking to round up all the escaped men, but Peter will go to many lengths to keep himself from ending up back in chains or worse.
It’s disappointing for many reasons to even have to address the elephant in the room, but while this movie was filmed well before the incident involving Smith at the Oscars, it’s hard to deny what potential there could have been for him, even after just coming off a win for Best Actor in King Richard. While good in that film, he’s giving even more of himself over here as far as how he plays with his physicality and reactions. Stripped of the charismatic elements that made him a star, Smith is working off instincts that he properly delivers to convey vulnerability and inner strength that keeps him going.
This would be much more helpful in a film that knew how to better serve this performance. Director Antoine Fuqua may have managed to help Denzel Washington nab an Oscar win for Training Day (and go on to direct Washington in some of his worst films), but the filmmaker primarily traffics in B-movie action flicks. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Emancipation seems to have delusions of grandeur when considering what this film is versus what it aspires to. While there are plenty of moments for Smith’s acting to shine, it’s also a film that has him fight an alligator and win. It’s the sort of film where he somehow becomes a crucial center focus in many notable moments when being just one of many would better serve the overall theme.
While Emancipation wants to be held alongside 12 Years A Slave or the non-Matthew Broderick portions of Glory, it’s honestly a lot more like The Patriot. That Mel Gibson/Roland Emmerich Revolutionary war film similarly played fast and loose with history but seemed convinced of its own importance rather than doing a cleaner job of being the gritty historical action movie it was. Emancipation is a 130-minute feature that takes few stops to examine Peter’s challenges in a significant way. A good two-thirds are devoted to the escape and subsequent chase through the swamps. That could make for a compelling thriller, but it winds up feeling redundant, given the lengths taken to stretch out this portion of the story.
Peter is eventually given the opportunity to join the Northern Army. During this time, we have the scene featuring two white men photographing the man’s bare back. It’s heavily scourged from all the whippings he’s received. While an effective visual, it’s also a moment defining how much of a modest impression this film left on me. Were this a movie attempting to gear itself toward a wider audience, I could say it’s playing fair to make a broad point. As it stands, this is an R-rated film happy to show the horrific results of slavery. Yet, the way we are dramatizing this sequence comes across as a checkmark on the list of things needed for a standard biopic (no points awarded for guessing the film ends with a handful of sentences to describe how slavery was wrapped up).
It could be tempting to at least praise the film on a technical level. No doubt, the large budget given to a black filmmaker is impressive to see utilized as effectively as it is in many ways here. However, Emancipation’s most notable cinematic quality is also its most distracting. Robert Richardson is one of the best working cinematographers out there, but for all his efforts to have the camera gliding through battlefields, the film feels hindered by the choice to desaturate the look so significantly.
The washed-out coloring, to the point of almost rendering this movie black & white, is a neat idea in theory, but it never ends up feeling justified. The concept of different levels of saturation also left me a bit confused about how much regard I am supposed to hold certain scenes. Ultimately, the choice amounted to stylization being favored above all, leaving me feeling cold to whatever emotional depth Emancipation may have been aiming for.
In the realm of stylized media taking an insightful look at how slavery has remained a devastating yet critical extended period of American history to analyze, I still cannot get over how Amazon dropped the ball on doing better to promote Barry Jenkins’ masterful miniseries, The Underground Railroad (It’s on Prime Video, and it’s spectacular). Emancipation has no real cards to carry by comparison. But even beyond what it does not match up to, the film feels like a missed opportunity for a movie star that has enjoyed taking risks many times at this stage in his career. Smith is certainly willing to go the distance, but even when subtracting the elements that make him a blockbuster entertainer, this film can’t help but cater to him in ways that make the project less interesting. Some aspects work, but this film can’t escape mediocrity.