Will Smith brings stern dramatic heft to an enslaved man making a dash for freedom in Antoine Fuqua’s tonally mish-mashed action drama.
A macabre B-movie in Oscar bait clothing, Emancipation sees genre hand Antoine Fuqua take a more-than-workable cat-and-mouse chase thriller and plant it within the context of American slavery’s dying days. Will Smith plays a glowering and rebellious Haitian enslaved man named Peter who is mercilessly ripped from the embrace of his wife and children to forcibly build a railroad that would serve to empower a stronghold of Confederate army rebels in northern Louisiana.
Ben Foster plays a beady-eyed, pony-tailed slave hunter whose performance appears to be modelled after one of the nastier Terminators, and when the educated Peter hears of Abraham Lincoln’s edict to emancipate Black people from the bonds of slavery, he and a small band of cohorts make a death-defying dash for the trees and, then, the hunt is very much on.
Despite its gestures towards the iconography of the late pre-bellum south, the film is more concerned with smuggling the thrills and spills of a flighty action epic to the screen. One sequence, in which Smith is filmed by a swooping drone-cam as he scarpers through the treacherous bayou, feels completely at odds with both the grave nature of the situation, and any attempt to cultivate a stylistic tone that enhances the seriousness of the material.
Smith’s muscular central performance is laudable, even if his character adds up to little more than a muddle of living deity clichés of the sort so often channelled by Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner in the 1990s. His unimpeachable ethics and consistent desire to sacrifice his livelihood for the greater cause bolsters the urgency of the film’s theme while leaving us with a protagonist without conflict or any real dramatic dimensions. The way in which. Fuqua delivers this story reveals all-too-quickly how things will eventually play out – and they do.
One strange decision is to shoot the entire film in aggressively desaturated tones, presumably to emphasise the harsh, barren nature of the landscape. Occasionally the plush green of a leaf or the washed-out orange from a flame will pierce through muddy visual patina, but it almost looks as if Fuqua wanted to film this in black and white and had to do the next best thing. The boggy aesthetic ugliness is perhaps fitting for the material, yet it also works as a visual distraction, as at times you’re left to wonder if the film isn’t being projected properly, or whether the colour grade has gone all wrong.
The film arrives at an everything-in-the-pot climax which appears to dispense with any pretence towards historical seriousness in favour of unalloyed explosive spectacle. It’s a shame, because the huge final set-piece feels ripe for a deeper political and historical investigation than it receives here. Peter’s unflappable, occasionally unbelievable heroism is placed front and centre, and it’s nearly always at the expense of making Emancipation a richer and more varied experience as a piece of cinema.
Published 2 Dec 2022
Will this be the Will Smith vehicle to make us forget about The Thing?
Smith is a huge performer and it’s rare to be able to singularly carry a film like this.
A slavery era-set film that maybe didn’t want or need to be set then.