review by Bobby Blakey
Despite his more recent controversy there is no denying Will Smith is a talented actor. Fresh off his recent Oscar win for King Richard, he is heading into more heavy history with his latest film Emancipation teaming up with one of my favorite directors Antoine Fuqua. The film features a great supporting cast including Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Gilbert Owuor, Mustafa Shakir, Steven Ogg, Grant Harvey, Ronnie Gene Bivens, Jayson Warner Smith, Jabbar Lewis, Michael Luwoye, Aaron Moten and Imani Pullum.
Emancipation follows the triumphant story of Peter, a man who escapes from slavery, relying on his wits, unwavering faith and deep love for his family to evade cold-blooded hunters and the unforgiving swamps of Louisiana on his quest for freedom. The film is inspired by the 1863 photos of “Whipped Peter,” taken during a Union Army medical examination that first appeared in Harper’s Weekly. One image, known as “The Scourged Back,” which shows Peter’s bare back mutilated by a whipping delivered by his enslavers, ultimately contributed to growing public opposition to slavery.
Anytime you take on the subject matter of slavery you know there are going to be some heavy elements to deal with that are both hard to watch and in a normal person would instill anger at the atrocities. I wasn’t sure how this film was going to be telling this story, but I knew with Smith and Fuqua at the helm it was going to be something big. For those with issues watching this film due to the Smith controversy it was a film in production long before the incident so will be reviewing based on the film as it is and nothing more.
The first thing that was an interesting choice was the grey color palates to the entire film. It almost comes off as black and white, but there is hints of green in the forest among other things that creep through. Not sure if this was just to be more along the lines of the photo its based off of or a
metaphor of the fight against slavery, but it was a brilliant choice. It gives the film a unique palate and in turn I think gives it a grittier and more grounded tone.
The story itself while impactful and well executed didn’t come across as emotionally powerful as I had expected. Don’t get me wrong, Smith is great in the role and all in to bring the emotional punch it needs to really make it work, but the crafting of the film almost felt more like a historical account infused with a bit more action/thriller elements. Now I am not saying that this is an action film by any means, but a lot of the film is following him in his escape and the fighting back when he can scenario. Not saying this isn’t something he would have gone through as it is well done just not the direction I had expected.
As mentioned before Smith is all in with yet another great performance. He pulls no punches in the role and you feel his anguish and pain all while still maintaining a faith in God that is impressive in itself given his circumstances. One of my favorite actors Ben Foster is great here as well with a very subtle sinister approach to the man in charge of the slave camp. He is a scary man because he was the type of man that existed then. The rest of the cast most notably those in running the camp are just horrific people. It is still baffling to know this people existed then and sadly still do today. There were times that I was both baffled and infuriated with them which is the proper response.
There are some pacing issues here and there and I think sometimes focused more on the escape and run a little much and didn’t allow you to always get fully invested in the true power of the story on display here. I have no doubt it will impact everyone differently and it should. IF a movie like this doesn’t illicit something emotionally from you then you might be part of the problem. I know there are likely a lot of people that will skip this one due to Smith’s behavior, but I think it is another important film on the subject that should be seen no matter your feelings of him.
Decide for yourself and check out Emancipation when it streams exclusively on Apple TV+ on December 9th.