It’s safe to say that the movie industry is still shaken from the crazy incident at last year’s Oscars. A year has nearly passed, and the world has now been offered another Will Smith movie, Emancipation. While some may be quick to bash the movie, it’s hard to deny that when the trailer dropped two months back, it was nothing less than visually striking!
However, it seems the world may not be ready for another Will Smith movie – as when the movie was screened at limited cinemas last week ahead of its release on Apple TV+, it was standing at a 3/10 on user ratings within minutes of voting opening.
So, with Will Smith’s actions aside, let’s look into Emancipation as a film, unbiased from any ‘Hollywood drama’.
Will Smith’s Return
Smith delivers a physically committed portrayal of Peter, a man of faith who is taken from his beloved family to live as a slave in Louisiana. This marks Smith’s first role since last year’s Oscar-winning performance in King Richard, and like always, he does not fail to deliver.
Peter was a strong-willed man who refused to be broken by his captors. Smith portrays a slightly fictionalized version of the escaped slave who famously became known as “Whipped Peter“. Peter gained notoriety after Abolitionists used pictures of his horrifically whipped back to show the true cruelty of slavery.
Emancipation adds thrill to the story by becoming a chase picture. After escaping the plantation, Peter is pursued by the relentless psychopath Jim Fassell (played menacingly by Ben Foster) and must contend with killer crocodiles, hunting dogs, and deadly conditions as he forges his way through the swamps to freedom.
Smith has an incredible ability to portray intense pain through his eyes. Peter is a man of strong emotion and determination. He promises his wife and children that he will return to them, and this weight is on his shoulders with every move he takes in the film. Every dangerous step he takes is a step closer to mending the hole in his heart, and Smith conveys this with dramatical ease.
Whatever you may think about Smith following his disgraced Oscars incident, Emancipation will still go down as a great addition to a strong arsenal of performances.
Antoine Fuqua Peaks as a Director?
While his films have received box office success and even earned Denzel Washington his second Oscar for Training Day, Antoine Fuqua has often been overlooked by critics as a filmmaker. Typically revenge flicks like The Equalizer isn’t critically acclaimed or talked about by the likes of the Academy – but slavery dramas usually are (i.e. Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave).
One could assume that Fuqua is setting out to prove himself with Emancipation and deliver his magnum opus. As a filmmaker who has tackled some dark subject matters before, this is by far the darkest and most controversial he has gotten.
The movie glides along at an impressive pace, mirroring the ultra-smooth, beautiful overhead shots of the treacherous swamps. The color grading is captivating – a black and white deer that gives way to ferocious reds and greens. The cinematography is reminiscent of The Revenant, and it’s safe to assume this was intentional. Fuqua builds tension and holds us tight throughout as Peter evades his captors. We feel the ache in this man’s heart, but we also believe in his strength to push on. Echoes of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto feel present here.
This is definitely a step up in the directing game for Fuqua but the picture, at times, feels a little too ugly. This is made up for, and the villains get their comeuppance, but this gives the film an overtone of revenge that doesn’t quite feel totally welcome. The second act crescendos to a rather anticlimactic end to the chase and then we enter some cliche, deeply inspirational war segments.
Overall the movie is a tight, engaging picture carried well by its leading man. Not quite the tour de force you’d expect, but there’s plenty of meat here for Smith to get his acting chops around! The happy Hollywood ending we crave as a viewer is there, but we do have to work for it.
It’s also fair to say that Emancipation feels too large for the small screen. The score matches the cinematography beautifully, and this may be easily overlooked when viewed at home. It’s a shame that Emancipation may go deep under the radar, as in otherworldly circumstances, it would be an impressive entry into the filmography of everyone involved.
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