Being a Black slave in the South during Civil War times was pretty awful, according to Emancipation, a movie that feels like a regurgitation of better movies. Fast-paced through and through, this Will Smith-starring Oscar wannabe unfortunately feels soulless.
The Great Slapper stars as Peter, a slave who runs away from his masters on news that the Union Army is nearby. Pursued relentlessly by a Civil War-era Ben Foster, Peter races to get to freedom.
Smith, in his first role since winning an Oscar and for getting kicked out of the Oscars for having a meltdown on Live TV, dons an African accent and some makeup to look like he’s seen some shit, but the principal issue with Emancipation is that Peter (historically known as Whipped Peter) is an empty character who only saw some shit in the makeup chair. If you were going to compare to, say, 12 Years a Slave, the protagonist–Solomon Northup, also a real person–was a fully realized individual with a deep back story and an established emotional connection with the audience. Emancipation is largely based on a horrific photograph, and so it should be no surprise that the end result is a largely flat experience.
The movie is directed by the ever-unpredictable Antoine Fuqua, a filmmaker who can make great stuff like Training Day but largely puts out ever-so-slightly forgettable fare year over year. Emancipation sadly falls into the latter category. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, but it operates solely on a sense of its own self-importance. Depicted in a saturated black-and-white aesthetic in an attempt to convince the audience that this is an Important Movie, Emancipation doesn’t tell us anything new and fails to strike an emotional chord despite the subject matter.
It works best as a survival film–much of its runtime has Will Smith running (or canoeing) from one situation to another, barely escaping capture–but the thrills are as muted as the color tone. If anything, it made me want to watch Mel Gibson’s criminally underseen Apocalypto, a much better made movie about a slave attempting to escape white people.
The pivot the film makes in the third act also took me by surprise. While I’m sure Fuqua and Smith were convinced that what caps off their “epic” is powerful stuff, it felt rushed and pasted onto a different movie. To their credit, what happens here is to some degree historically accurate, but again, the movie seems more interested in hurling its empty vessel into yet another life threatening experience than giving us any insight into how his character has evolved. Or what makes him tick. Or what his favorite color is.
Emancipation tries to bite off more than it can chew. It wants to be an epic slavery drama, a survival thriller, and a gritty war film all at once, but Smith’s poorly written character fails to be the collective glue it needed to be. Smith is fine but unremarkable, hampered by the same character defects. The consistently intense Foster, by the way, is completely wasted.
Being a Black slave in the South during Civil War times was pretty awful, yes, but watching Emancipation isn’t exactly a walk in the park, either.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.