Review: 'Emancipation' Slumps, Smith Soars

Friday December 9, 2022

Will Smith in "Emancipation"
Will Smith in "Emancipation"  (Source:Apple TV+)

Your next movie after an Oscar win is a hard thing to do well. Many actors have fallen prey to the post-Oscar slump, seemingly unable to find the roles in which they can recapture the same magic that won them the highest acting accolade. So to say that there are judgmental eyes on Will Smith (not even digging into the weight of "the slap") is putting things mildly. But with "Emancipation," Will Smith effectively shuts down the naysayers, delivering a performance that should put him in those same awards conversations, even if the movie itself doesn't quite measure up.

Director Antoine Fuqua is trying to accomplish a lot. He is attempting to create a historical text of the life of Gordon, or "Whipped Peter" (Peter in the film). But he is also creating a runaway slave action flick, that he then sprinkles a heavy amount of religion and familial strife into. It's a tall order for any filmmaker, and perhaps even taller for Fuqua, who hasn't done something of this scale or desired prestige. Adding more complexity is the fact that, historically, the story of Gordon is one that is riddled with inaccuracies and assumptions, so getting to the "truth" is nearly impossible.

What Fuqua does well is action, and that is where "Emancipation" really excels. The majority of the film is focused on Peter's escape to an awaiting Union Army in Baton Rouge. In fact, so much of the movie focuses on this element of Peter's story that even the title feels like a misnomer. Peter's life with his family feels like a prologue, and his time with the Union Army an epilogue. But I'm not confident that Fuqua sees it that way. With its touting of historical dates and the impossible-to-ignore "based on a true story" title card, Fuqua seemingly refuses to accept that this is a movie about escape, despite what the final product delivers.

That being said, Peter's escape is brutally captivating. Despite spending so much of the film's runtime with no lines, Will Smith conveys fear, urgency, and determination with his actions and movements. Fuqua's camera is wonderfully mobile, using sweeping pans to illustrate not only the scope of Peter's journey but the complexity of his swamp-riddled path. At times, "Emancipation" feels like a '70s-era action flick (Peter literally wrestles an alligator), and that is arguably when it's at its best. It's the same style and excitement that Fuqua brought to "Training Day," "Olympus Has Fallen," and "The Equalizer," and it is what sets the director apart. Unfortunately, he has grander ambitions.

I'm not suggesting that there is nothing of interest outside of Peter's escape, just that in execution it is largely found lacking. "Emancipation" doesn't paint the Union Army as some moral reverse of the Confederacy, and does work to show those white men as more than anti-slavery. Depicting the way in which the Union used the freed and formerly enslaved as tools for their own means (conscripting them into service and shoving them into the front lines) is something that I can't recall in modern cinema, and certainly worthy of exploring.

However, the script fails the movie as anything that isn't a grand monologue on what is right and wrong feels stilted and lesser. Additionally, outside of Peter himself (and arguably Ben Foster's manhunter Fassel), there is little to no character development. This results in the subplot of Peter's family feeling like a last minute add-on for forced emotional manipulation, which is a disservice to Smith's performance.

What keeps "Emancipation" from being great is its attempt to be something that it is not. As an action film recounting a slave's escape from torture, it is beyond captivating. Fuqua's direction of the action is gruesome, but not needlessly so, and visually kinetic. However, as he attempts to grow the film beyond these strictures, he falters, delivering something that feels cribbed from an Oscar-bait playbook. The layering of its historical bonafides feels like lip-service, the story of Peter's family tacked on, the reliance on religion waters down its story of the triumph of will, and the script is lazily written.

Despite these many misgivings, Will Smith gives a performance that is astounding: pained yet strong, tortured yet resilient. Smith delivers his emotional speeches with gusto, and invokes a subtlety in the quieter moments that is arguably more powerful. "Emancipation" may not be a perfect film, an explosive action movie buried in a wannabe prestige picture, but in it Will Smith avoids an Oscar slump and further cements his status as a top-tier actor.

"Emancipation" is playing in select theaters and streaming on Apple TV+.