Will Smith Slavery Drama Emancipation Is Drained of Life and Color

Movies Reviews Will Smith
Will Smith Slavery Drama Emancipation Is Drained of Life and Color

Will Smith is both an industrial-strength movie star and a nimbly talented actor. He finds the common ground between the two by so often exceeding the tangible limitations of his material, whether that material is t-shirt-light or armor-heavy. His long-term brand management is so effective (with perhaps one recent exception) that those limitations often appear self-imposed, and his serious movies in particular, like The Pursuit of Happyness or his Oscar-winning King Richard, have a kind of self-help streak running through them, a discomfiting bootstraps-based survival guide for recent American history. The most interesting dimension of Emancipation, his otherwise fairly undistinguished new slavery-era drama, is the nagging sense that it somehow must fit into the rubric that produced that kind of wealth-spiration, as well as weirder attempts at healing self-actualization like Collateral Beauty or After Earth.

Smith plays Peter, based on a real-life enslaved man named Gordon who escaped a Louisiana plantation in 1863, after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and became the subject of a famous photo showing the horrific network of whipping scars covering his back. He also joined the Union army and escaped the Confederates once more, as a soldier. Antoine Fuqua’s film focuses primarily on the visceral immediacy of Peter’s separation from his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and their children when he’s sent to lay railroad tracks for the Confederates, and his subsequent flight. Though he escapes in a small group, the men are quickly separated as they’re pursued by Fassel (Ben Foster), a ruthless slave hunter.

At this point, anyone who recalls Smith’s well-publicized reluctance to star in Django Unchained may start to wonder what’s going on here. Fuqua may not be a Tarantino-level encyclopedia of exploitation movies, but he’s not much for solemn message pictures, either: He started off his feature career with the music-video flash of The Replacement Killers, is currently completing a trilogy of Equalizer movies and even his big Oscar success, Training Day, is as much pulp fiction as it is a soul-searcher. Accordingly, he treats Emancipation like both a Western—one where only the white guys get to ride horses and wear hats—and a wilderness survival thriller, with Peter making his way through the Louisiana swamps, often evading capture by a matter of moments or inches.

Emancipation isn’t a full-on action-adventure; Smith isn’t wisecracking his way through the country’s greatest ongoing atrocity. On the other hand, when Foster has been hired to do the laconic glowering as the film’s most specific villain (the others are garden-variety founts of spluttering cruelty), smoking a little pipe and speaking with a vaguely Midwestern-sounding inflection that resembles an English actor wrestling with an American accent, it’s hard to take the movie seriously as a historical document, no matter how much gnarly Civil War gore splashes across the screen. Also, at one point Smith wrestles an alligator.

Is this any less worthy of attention than, say, The Revenant, in which Leonardo DiCaprio went through a series of natural and man-made ordeals, one after another? Not necessarily, and maybe Fuqua deserves some credit for avoiding prestige-picture pretension, though at times Emancipation nonetheless looks like he’s attempting to imitate the somber palette of late-period Clint Eastwood. In Fuqua’s most recent films, he’s abandoned the filmier, higher-temperature look of his 2000s action movies in favor of pale skies and washed-out grays, and here he takes that approach further, to a new stylized extreme: Much of the movie is so color-drained that at first (and repeatedly) it looks like it was shot in actual black-and-white. Some color accents do peek through—orange fire, hints of green—but they never last. For Peter, there’s no glowing, verdant respite from his struggle. (When he does meet up with the Union, he’s trading one individualized harrowing experience for a more collective one.) He’s just working his way through the endless muck.

This brings us back to Smith. He carries the narrative like a practiced star; he has to, because Peter barely has a character beyond the purity of his determination and his religious faith. “God is with us,” he tells a fellow slave. “Why has he not set you free?” is the rejoinder—but Peter has an answer for this, naturally. His journey toward freedom doesn’t feel quite as overt as some of Smith’s other can-do dramas; this is a grimmer picture of a man refusing to say die, and of course his cause is a righteous one. It’s satisfying to see Smith survive; he always projects more than simple suffering. Yet the movie isn’t quite evocative enough to work as effective minimalism. It averages out a stripped-down Smith and the more florid filmmaking touches to land squarely in the middle of the road. Emancipation ostensibly addresses the creation of a famous image that shifted the course of public perception—a potential companion piece, then, to Till, from earlier this year—but Fuqua can’t do much with his own image-making beyond keeping the camera moving and faithfully recreating those famous photos. If there’s more left to say about the vileness of slavery or how it entwined with a stunningly bloody Civil War, Emancipation doesn’t bother saying it. In its straightforward way, it’s still a little starstruck.

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: William N. Collage
Starring: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Steven Ogg
Release Date: December 2, 2022

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.

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