Will Smith fully commits himself to his escaping slave role in Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation. Unfortunately due in large part to a paint-by-numbers script and a lack of vision, Smith’s performance is as close as the film gets to greatness.
During the American Civil War in Louisiana, enslaved Peter (Smith) is taken away from his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and children and sold from his plantation. Peter is forced to work on a railroad under the watchful eye of vicious tracker Fassel (Ben Foster).
When Peter overhears workers discussing the Emancipation Proclamation, he makes a plan to escape towards Baton Rouge towards Lincoln’s army. Escaping through the swamps with Fassel hot on his trail, Peter must brave the treacherous lands and deadly forces to gain his own freedom and get back to his family.
Dramatization of a true story aside, no one behaves like an actual human. Peter’s white pursuers are all sadistic, purely evil, and ego-maniacal. These aren’t characters, they are constructs. Peter’s compatriots are equally as underdeveloped. No character has subtext or unbalanced motives. There are good people who hate slavery and bad people who love it. For a film bathed in gray, there are no gray characters in the film.
The film brings up some interesting ideas but leaves them completely unexplored. Peter is highly religious, but other slaves taunt him for attempting to keep other slaves in line using religion. This provides some narratively rich avenues, but the film decides to have Peter put his faith in God without ever wrestling with it. His faith is steadfast, but he has zero qualms killing to stay alive. Once again, the film could have approached some fascinating ideas, but it just charges forward instead of dealing with consequences.
Smith’s clear dedication and belief in the role translates most specifically in his physicality. His gaunt frame and seething rage makes his escape all the more enthralling. The relatively silent action of Peter’s escape is captivating and dynamic. When Smith has to speak, that’s when things go wrong. The action/survival aspects of his performance are impeccable. The dramatic speeches about God and freedom fall flat.
Foster does the stereotypical epitomization of evil as well as one can, but it’s in service to a character that has no arc. He’s known as a world-class tracker, but does little more than display Indian-like clichés of tasting dirt and then heading in a direction. The film has a scene where they attempt to give Fasselsome characterization, and it just serves to make him that much more despicable.
Bingwa does what she can, but having Peter’s wife be a part of the narrative is used solely a plot device. Peter escapes his captors so he can be free to then in turn free his family. Their purpose is the driving force in his story. They barely have agency of themselves. No other actor distinguishes themselves to warrant a mention.
While the color grading has received its fair share of criticism, it didn’t both me, That being said, it is wildly inconsistent. Sometimes the film looks drenched in blues, other times sepias and browns, while some scenes look specifically black-and-white. Why this decision was made and what purpose it serves is never made clear.
Will Smith’s devotion to the material is commendable, but Emancipation is too broad and predictable to be anything other than passably interesting.
Emancipation is now streaming on AppleTV+