Will Smith looks pissed off and miserable in Emancipation for two hours straight. You’ll likely feel similarly while watching it.
The film, directed by Antoine Fuqua, doesn’t really say anything new about the atrocity of slavery. It seems like an excuse to show Will Smith fighting an alligator underwater and scowling a lot.
Smith plays Peter, a character based on the infamous Civil War-era photos of a former slave’s scarred back, in a fictional story about a slave’s escape from a Confederate labor camp after President Lincoln declares slaves to be freed. Peter is chased by a slew of tobacco-chewing, hate-spewing stereotypes, led by Jim Fassel, a character played by Ben Foster. Foster is a good actor, but this feels like something he’s done before, and it certainly plays like something we’ve seen before. It’s just caricature lacking any real dimension. Granted, racist scumbags aren’t notable for their depth, but even this dark part of history played to more than one or two notes.
The first half of the film is nothing but a standard chase movie with a swampy backdrop, while the second involves Peter joining the North’s army in a sequence reminiscent of the far superior Glory (1989).
Emancipation won’t do much to restore any sense of normalcy to Smith’s career following his infamous slap of Chris Rock at the Oscars ceremony. The role doesn’t allow him to do much besides grimace, scream and frown, and he has almost no notable dialogue. When you are dealing with this subject, it demands a script with heft. The script for Emancipation, however, is barren of any true meaning, and totally flat.
It’s clear that a lot of work went into this movie, but it’s mostly for naught, because Emancipation doesn’t seem to have any real sense of purpose other than showing Smith getting shot and beaten while saying next to nothing. It doesn’t really amount to anything.
Emancipation is streaming on Apple TV+.