Movie Review: Emancipation

It was the slap seen around the world. At the 94th Academy Awards ceremony last March, actor Will Smith took exception to a joke told by host Chris Rock and he marched on stage to tell him so with his open hand. Many people, myself included, who watched the event live thought it was a setup but it soon became apparent that it was real. The incident put a damper on the rest of the evening, climaxing when Smith won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in KING RICHARD. People in the audience didn’t know whether to applaud, boo, sit quietly or hide under their seats. It was truly one of the most cringeworthy moments in Oscar history.

Smith is now back with EMANCIPATION – his first film since the slap. Although he has now been banned from attending Oscars ceremonies for the next ten years, there is a possibility that Smith could win back-to-back Oscars. But even if he isn’t nominated, he won’t be at the Dolby Theatre next March to congratulate his successor.

Inspired by real events, EMANCIPATION tells the story of Peter (played by Smith), a Haitian slave on a cotton plantation in Louisiana who decides to run and join the Union side when he hears that Lincoln has freed the slaves and his army has reached Baton Rouge. Although Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in early 1863, the reality is that for hundreds of thousands of slaves, freedom has not reached them (and won’t for another 2-1/2 years). Peter, however, is determined not to wait and he risks everything to escape, leaving his wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa, TV’s THE GOOD FIGHT), and children behind on the plantation but promising them that he will return. “Runners”, as they are called, are not allowed, and slave tracker Fassel (Ben Foster, THE CONTRACTOR; LEAVE NO TRACE) and his men go after Peter to ensure he never reaches his goal.

Oh my, where to begin? EMANCIPATION suffers from a few problems, the biggest being déjà vu. If you’ve seen one of the early episodes of LOVECRAFT COUNTRY; THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD; 12 YEARS A SLAVE or DJANGO UNCHAINED, then you’ve seen this story before… and done better. And that’s just the first half of the film, which is basically just slavery porn. Peter is not your average slave though, as Fassel and Dodienne keep reminding us, and we get to watch him hide out in alligator-infested swamps, cauterize his wounds with a hot knife and even enter a burning plantation house to rescue a slave child all while on the run. Fassel, meanwhile, is as one-dimensional a character as you can get in a movie. His one moment where we get some insight into his motivation is instructive, especially in light of the racism that’s taking place around us today, but that’s as far as the story goes in giving Fassel some nuance.

When Peter finally reaches the Union camp, the story starts to get slightly more interesting. Director Antoine Fuqua (THE GUILTY; THE EQUALIZER films) introduces a tinge of colour into his mostly desaturated palette as Peter enlists in Lincoln’s army in order to liberate his family and friends from the racist Johnny Rebs. (Could the symbolism be more obvious?) At this point the movie begins to feel like GLORY; BRAVEHEART and even A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.

Story and direction problems aside, the big question on many people’s minds is whether Smith will get an Oscar nomination for this performance. The actor certainly throws himself into the character but Fuqua doesn’t give him a lot to work with, leaving the actor to channel his inner William Wallace and Stanley Kowalski for dramatic, Oscar-baiting effect. It comes across as desperate and unearned.

EMANCIPATION is streaming now on AppleTV+. If the film doesn’t receive any Oscar nominations, it won’t be because of the slap.

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