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Review: Emancipation (Apple TV+)

December 9, 2022

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

In Emancipation, a runaway slave drama that is somewhat okay as an action movie but feels heavy-handed as awards bait, Antoine Fuqua directs the story of Peter (Will Smith), a slave who escapes to find freedom following Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1861.

In the opening scenes, Peter is ripped from his family and sent to work on the railroad, where he overhears the men talking about President Lincoln freeing the slaves. Desperate to escape, Peter flees on foot through the swamps of Louisiana in the direction of Baton Rouge, where the Union Army is stationed, while being pursued by sadistic slave owner Jim Fassel (Ben Foster).

As we know from his previous films like Training Day, The Equalizer, and the 2016 Magnificent Seven remake, Fuqua is a decent action movie director, and in many ways Emancipation works best when it is functioning solely as a gritty exploitation movie focusing on the cat-and-mouse chase between Peter and Jim. There are moments of tension and suspense as Peter faces off against snarling dogs, snapping alligators and cruel humans. The problem is that the film is also trying to be a serious Oscar-bait drama, and it never fully picks a lane.

The film is inspired by the powerful true story of an escaped slave whose photo of the scarring on his back helped raise awareness of the brutality of slavery when it was published in 1863. But Fuqua and screenwriter William N. Collage’s approach to telling his story feels simplistic. You could say that this is a feature and not a bug in terms of simply showing the degrading, dehumanizing horrors of slavery in varying degrees of graphic detail, but devoid of much deeper meaning, Emancipation can feel too much like trauma porn.

Smith is good in the film. If his performance can feel overwrought at times, he brings a muscular quality to the action scenes that reminds us of his designation as a movie star (this should have been a victory lap following his Oscar win for King Richard, but is now being released as an attempt at a comeback following “the slap”). For his part, Foster has a few genuinely unsettling scenes. While his character doesn’t feel particularly well fleshed out, he manages to deliver a menacing performance that leaves a mark.

The film has been given a heavily desaturated colour palate that makes everything appear almost black and white, with a few overtones of green and brown, but this desaturation is simply a distraction. There is the occasional striking image courtesy of cinematographer Robert Richardson, but the image is much crisper in moments when it does fully move into black and white. The film would have looked better if it was entirely monochrome, or embraced a more vivid colour palate, instead of looking like there is a distracting Instagram filter over the entire thing.

There are some more stirring moments, such as Peter’s wife (Charmaine Bingwa) singing to their kids, but they are somewhat buried in a film that too often feels heavy-handed and manipulative. Fuqua’s film also runs long at 132 minutes, and while we don’t exactly feel the running time, the pacing certainly could have been better. The last act becomes a war movie, and it feels rushed, no matter how technically well crafted the battle scene is. Overall, Emancipation feels like a real mixed bag, never quite settling on whether it wants to be a straight-forward action movie or a more high-minded awards drama.

Emancipation is now available to stream exclusively on Apple TV+.

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