Will Power: ‘Emancipation’ movie review

Can Will Smith’s epic slavery tale drown out his infamous Oscars slap?

Will Smith and Ben Foster star in ‘Emancipation.’

Starring Will Smith & Ben Foster
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Rated R

See it: In select theaters now; available on Apple TV+ Friday, Dec. 9

This grueling drama doesn’t flinch from depicting the scourges of slavery. Will Smith (who’s also one of the film’s producers) wants us to remember and reflect on a not-so-long-ago time in America when Black men, women and children were bought and sold, tortured, treated as less than animals and worked to death.

But Smith would also like us to not remember—or hopefully forget—something more recent: the slap.

Ah, yes, the slap—at the 94th annual Academy Awards in March, when he stomped on stage and smacked host Chris Rock for making a wisecrack about his wife. For his assaultive outburst, Smith lost his membership in the Academy and was banned from attending the Oscars for the next 10 years. His spasm of lash-out, bad-boy behavior made him an overnight Hollywood pariah, an emblem of toxic masculinity. 

So…does the public now have any appetite for a Will Smith movie? Even an “important” one, like Emancipation? Have moviegoers forgotten what happened nine months ago, or will they continue Smith’s double-secret-probation banishment by turning away from his most recent work, a showy, $120 million wannabe blockbuster? Or could this movie, in a most dramatic sideways twist, reward him with another Oscar nomination, perhaps even another Oscar win?

Emancipation is a mostly solid piece of moviemaking (director Antione Fuqua has already won an Oscar, for Training Day), but it doesn’t feel like Oscar material to me. It’s a somewhat hammy, heavily dramatized, uneven mix of pulpy, pumped-up survivor action and hellish slavery horrors as Smith’s character—known as Peter—flees from his captivity into the swamps of Louisiana, following the kabooms of “Lincoln’s canons,” hoping his desperate bid for freedom will intersect with the approaching Union army.

Ben Foster, who’s so good at playing bad, is the film’s other central character, a cold-hearted runaway-slave tracker obsessed with finding Peter…and with making sure all Black people remain under white America’s heel.

Peter is driven by his determination to see his wife and children again, bolstered by an unwavering faith in God, and girded by memories of the agonizing abuses he’s endured. It also helps that he, somehow, knows how to navigate the murky dangers of the swampy bayou, like an antebellum-era version of TV survivalist Bear Grylls, evading bloodhounds, dodging bullets, climbing trees with lemur-like skills, self-treating life-threatening wounds and even besting an alligator in an underwater wrestling match. 

He’s super-handy turning field implements into lethal weapons, and just wait until gets ahold of a gun.

It’s a muddy, bloody tale, especially in a prolonged opening sequence filled with deeply unsettling reckonings of the manifold cruelties of slavery, stirring a dismal abyss of history with searing detail. The movie takes place during the waning year of the Confederacy, in 1884, but it looks like the Dark Ages when you see slaves’ decapitated heads on pikes or watch a captured runaway tortured with a branding iron.  

There are echoes of other films, like D’Jango Unchained, Glory and—in one epic battle scene—even Saving Private Ryan. Emancipation joins a long line of movies that have found high cotton in the turbulence of the Confederate South, including 12 Years a Slave, Antebellum and Harriett. But if you’re looking for Rhett and Scarlett from Gone with the Wind, well, they’re long gone, pop-cultural flotsam and jetsam of a more enlightened entertainment era.  

The film does have some impressive stylistic flourishes, like a scene at a plantation house being destroyed by fire, a symbol for a nation “going down in flames,” demolished in the partisan furnaces of the Civil War. Everything is filmed in a monochrome patina, making things look like authentic daguerreotype photos of the era.

And speaking of photos… It’s all based on a true, widely circulated story about a slave—nicknamed “Whipped Peter”—who escaped and joined the Union forces. A photo of Peter’s back, a shocking lattice of welts and scars from countless lashes of the whip, was published in Harper’s magazine and seen by people nearly everywhere, making the brutality of human bondage impossible for anyone in the Northern states to continue to ignore, deny or accept—particularly anyone under the delusion that the “forced labor” of slavery was a just a necessary and normalized component of the South’s money-making machinery.

Emancipation has a message about deeply engrained racism and the scars—like the vicious mutilations across Peter’s back—from a shameful, painful chapter of America’s past. And Smith’s intense, committed performance brings to the screen an impassioned tale of survival and endurance.

But is it enough to drown out a slap heard (and seen) round the world?


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