A year since he served up an Oscar-winning ace, starring in Williams sisters tennis drama King Richard, Will Smith is back. Normally, an actor’s next role following an Academy triumph would be greeted like a homecoming. But after Smith’s on-camera assault on Chris Rock at the Oscars, feelings might be different towards his new movie Emancipation. Smith has even admitted as much, saying he “completely understands” if audiences give it a miss.
Which, frankly, would be a shame. Arriving on Apple TV+, Emancipation is a gruelling-but-gripping true-life slavery drama, made with care and craft, and boasting another fine Smith performance. The polar opposite to his gregarious father to Serena and Venus Williams, he plays Peter, a quiet God-fearing Louisiana slave who makes a break for freedom. Famously, it was a photograph taken of him – of his back, covered in scars – that showed the world the horrors of slavery.
Set in the early 1860s, when President Lincoln abolished slavery, Emancipation throws you right into a scalding mix. Ripped from his family, Peter is enslaved with others, working on a railroad project in the Deep South. As corpses of deserters swing from the trees, others are beaten and branded for trying to escape. But when Peter overhears that President Lincoln has abolished slavery, he resolves to flee, fully aware that the white men who hold the key to his chains have no intention of letting him, or anyone else, go.
After a violent fight, Peter is joined by three others as they make their way through the swamps to Baton Rouge, where Lincoln’s army is fighting. Chasing them is the ruthless Jim Fassel (Ben Foster), who leads a posse of men and dogs to track them. If they don’t get them, then the snakes and alligators lurking in the murky waters surely will. But as this quartet split, it’s Peter’s journey through hell that we follow.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), Emancipation sure gets the heart beating. You want to see Peter wrestling an alligator under the water? Check. Or shinning up a tree to steal honey from a beehive? You got it. Whether its covering himself with onion to evade the dogs or searing his own wounds with a knife, there’s something Rambo-like about his survival skills. Subtle it is not, much in the way Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave wasn’t.
Yet there’s no doubt Emancipation is remarkable-looking, led by its bleached-out cinematography. With footage drained of its colour – bar occasional flashes, like a house engulfed in flames – it gives the film a very stark quality. Further emphasising Peter’s bleak travels, Fuqua also favours overhead shots, capturing the scale of the swamps, the slave compound or, late in the film, warring Union and Confederacy soldiers.
How emotional you will find Emancipation is another matter. Peter’s motivation to make it through the swamps is to reunite with his family, although there is little of this to grasp onto. His own relationship with God seems stronger. The grim fate of so many characters, beaten and murdered, might also see the film accused of gratuitousness. But driven by Smith’s committed turn, it’s still a noble tribute to Peter and all those who suffered during this abhorrent moment in history.
- Director: Antoine Fuqua
- Starring: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa
- Release date: December 2 (select cinemas), December 9 (Apple TV+)