I’m glad I finally watched the latest from director Antoine Fuqua and star Will Smith. EMANCIPATION has been on my list since it hit AppleTV+, but early “grapevine reviews” (aka ‘I heard it wasn’t very good.’) steered me away for a bit. To be fair, given the heavy subject matter, holiday stress, and an inconsistent track record from Fuqua, I’m sure I’m not the only one to have hesitated. But I’m here to tell you, EMANCIPATION is worth your time, but it’s far from a perfect film.
The story is based on a real person named Peter, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the southeastern United States at some point before the Civil War. From there, I don’t know much of the film is true outside of a general outline of how Peter escaped and what he did with his life after.
Most of EMANCIPATION’S play time revolves around Peter breaking away from his captors and his attempts to evade them while traversing the swamps of Louisiana. It’s an action film by way of a very intense thriller, although the plot very rarely pauses to take a breath and develop any of the characters beyond slaves vs. the evil masters. I can see that many critics may have a real issue with this, but it’s what I enjoyed most about it. Yes, Peter was a real person, but he was also millions of people. When his true story broke in the 1860s, he was a symbol worldwide of the horrors of the slave trade. The Peter in the film, played by Smith, represents the thousands of enslaved people who risked their lives to escape. There’s no shortage of slavery horrors in this film, but it also doesn’t dwell on them as so many other American films have done. This may be because most of the movies about this subject matter have had entire white creative teams, and this doesn’t, although the credited screenwriter, Bill Collage, is white.
EMANCIPATION fails to gain a better review from me because just as soon as you think it’s over, it’s not. While the last 30 minutes of the film are based on real events that took place during the Civil War, the story has pivoted from action-thriller to war drama. Smith is still the star, but the introduction of several other characters pulls the focus away from Peter versus the man tracking him, played by Ben Savage. Some cheesy dialogue gets sprinkled in here, and the momentum drops to a halt.
Smith is fantastic again, as he always is in these types of heavily dramatic roles. Savage’s role feels familiar to other parts he’s played, but he nails it every time. EMANCIPATION is shown in mostly black & white with some color sprinkled in, and when it works, it’s gorgeous. Besides the swamp scenes, and especially during the few interiors, the black & white looks flat and as if it was an afterthought. With Smith’s recent issues with The Academy, he’ll probably be overlooked for an acting award, but I’ll be rooting for him.
EMANCIPATION is streaming on AppleTV+.