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Friday, January 27, 2023

‘Emancipation’ Review | Will Smith grounds this slave-on-a-run tale

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Will Smith in a still from ‘Emancipation’ (2022).

Yes, we’ll come to “The Slap” later in this review.

Will Smith’s Emancipation tries to show us the horrors of slavery while in the trappings of a genre movie. Antoine Fuqua directs this movie based on the real life story of Gordon, a slave who escaped to freedom during the Civil War. The photograph of Gordon’s mutilated back, known as “Whipped Peter”, became a symbol of the horrors of American slavery.

At the beginning of the movie, we see a deeply religious Peter praying with his family before being taken to work on another site to build a railroad for the military. The movie wastes no time showing us the brutality of the owner and his henchmen as they beat and force Peter into the transport. Peter is shown to be someone who tends to stand up even when he shouldn’t and who pushes back against some of the more brutal actions of the White men who supervise the workforce. When he overhears some of the supervisors talking about Lincoln, Peter decides to escape to Baton Rouge where the Union army is. He seizes an opportunity to make a run for it and the rest of the movie is largely the cat-and-mouse chase between Fassel, a brutal slave hunter played by Ben Foster and Peter.

Fuqua and writer William Collage’s decision to stage the plot as a chase gives it propulsion, but robs the larger story of its heft and impact. The horrors of slavery have been explored multiple times in film, most recently with 12 Years A Slave (2013). Similar moments in Emancipation are just as wrenching but don’t add anything new to the discourse.

The most interesting aspect of Collage’s screenplay comes after the chase ends and Peter encounters Lincoln’s army. Peter comes to the realisation that he has no choice but to join the army if he wants to see his family again. This leads him to question if what he has achieved is really freedom, or if all he has done is trade one form of slavery for another. It’s a more complex question than this movie can or wants to deal with.

Fuqua and his cinematographer Robert Richardson choose to present their story in heavily-muted colours resulting in a near-monochromatic palette, except for instances of blood and fire. Richardson’s camerawork is fluid and unhurried, gliding over the cotton farms and railroads. The final Civil War climax is breathtaking and meticulously staged with cannons, trenches, and plumes of smoke obscuring the very real human bodies that are the cost of this war. This sequence will surely be on the Oscar submission reel for Richardson, who is one of only three people (along with the legendary Vittorio Storaro, and the GOAT Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki) to have won Best Cinematography three times.

Charmaine Bingwa as Peter’s wife, Dodienne, brings a quiet dignity to her performance. Ben Foster is adequate in a role that calls for a Ben Foster-type. Unfortunately, that seems to be all the effort that the writer has put into sketching out his role. Apart from one out-of-place scene where Foster’s slave hunter Fassel inexplicably opens up about his childhood, the role is largely Foster being menacing and relentless, something the very capable actor could play in his sleep.

Which brings us to Will Smith. Coming off a Best Actor win for his role as Richard Williams in King Richard (2021), Smith goes all in on this role. He embodies Peter’s steely determination, as well as the anger just lurking below the surface. Smith’s Haitian accent seems like he’s trying hard to avoid comparisons to his earlier accent work in Concussion (2015). Unfortunately, Smith’s real-life persona sometimes makes it hard to suspend disbelief, which is not a knock on his acting skills.

In any other year, this performance would be a shoo-in for a Best Actor run, but it’s difficult to predict what the long-lasting effects of The Slap are, if any. The Academy has banned him from the ceremony, but bizarrely, he can still be nominated. Meanwhile, Smith is working the PR circuit playing a delicate balance between promoting the movie and having to answer for his transgression.

Emancipation eventually works better as a chase spectacle than a statement on slavery. At the premiere of the movie, producer Joey McFarland walked the red carpet carrying an original photo of Gordon that he owns. His actions prompted criticisms and questions about why the picture is in a private collection rather than a museum. And while Emancipation flirts with the idea of what it means to be freed, the mere existence of the movie should bring up questions of what it means to appropriate a black man’s image for (well-intentioned) reasons that he nevertheless did not agree to in 1863, and has no control over in 2022.

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