There is a question with every new movie depicting the Holocaust or slavery or some other horror of the past, why do we need this still? It’s a suitable question but one that rests upon the fleeting assumption of history being settled upon. “We all agree slavery was bad,” some opponent might say, “So why do we need another movie to convince us what we already know?” One need only look at the last couple years and the diverging controversies over teachers covering the ills of America’s past with clarity, and it’s clear that the idea of settled-upon history is an illusion. There will be people arguing slavery wasn’t as bad as history has perpetuated, that even the Irish experienced something similar as indentured servants (but they were still legally viewed as people). Some will erroneously argue that slaves were there by choice, or that their masters weren’t all cruel, and that even by having a roof over their head and the bare minimum for sustenance that they were “looked after.” There are battles happening all over the country, with one side trying to present the evils of slavery in an unvarnished manner and the other trying to obfuscate, mitigate, or distract from the facts because accepting a reality that your country has made mistakes somehow means being unpatriotic or loving your country considerably less. So to answer the question, as long as we have others denying history for political expediency, then yes, we need more media to remind us that the horrors of the past were indeed horrific. With that in mind, Emancipation is meant to be a rousing spectacle about one man’s incredible fight for freedom, but what it really comes across is a fumbling awards movie as awkward action movie.
Peter (Will Smith), or known as Gordon, is separated from his family and forced to work on the Confederate railroad in 1863 Louisiana. He hears about President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves and believes if he can just get to a Union camp, then he can return to his family. Peter fights back and escapes into the swamps and heads for Baton Rouge, a five-day journey. On his trail is the dangerous slave catcher Jim Fassell (Ben Foster), who will stop at nothing to secure Perter and prove his racial superiority to his fugitive.
There are two competing impulses running through Emancipation that never seem to coalesce, always pulling the movie in opposite directions or at least undercutting its value in entertainment or substance. On the surface, Emancipation looks like an awards-ready spotlight. It’s got Will Smith playing a real-life historical figure who suffered greatly but triumphed in the end, a man whose image lives on in our history books (well, depending upon your state) and contributed to the abolitionist movement. He was a real person who made a real difference during a tumultuous time. I get a strong sense that Smith was following the 2015 template of Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Revenant for this project, and especially the Academy-friendly model of physical torment equaling Oscar gold as it did for Leo. It’s hard not to feel like the movie was formulated as an awards gamble, that sizing up all the elements, Smith saw a fast track back to the Oscars (this was in production before Smith did win his first acting Oscar for 2021’s King Richard). Naturally, Smith isn’t the first person to select Oscar-friendly roles for the purpose of earning some serious acting trophies. Nor should he be inordinately penalized for that ambition. All that matters is the end result, and it’s there where Emancipation struggles with its own identity crisis and where its transparency becomes a hindrance.
This movie wants to be a substantive drama that can enlighten us about the perseverance of the human spirit, and for the first thirty minutes Emancipation feels honed from the likes of 12 Years a Slave. Then at the Act One break, Peter and several other slaves break free, and from there the story becomes a tense chase movie for an hour, only to conclude its final half hour as a war movie akin to Glory. It’s a tonal balancing act that doesn’t quite work. I was interested in the first 30 minutes, which establishes the brutality of slavery in a way that feels empathetic but tasteful. It’s a question whether or not historical horrors should be watered down, made palpable to a wider audience, and if in doing so dilutes the power of history, but that’s another debate. When the movie becomes an elongated chase sequence is where my patience began to wane. This is where director Antoine Fuqua really seems to settle in, playing into his background of action movies (Training Day, The Equalizer, Olympus Has Fallen, The Magnificent Seven). Fuqua’s instincts are for action movies, and that’s what Emancipation becomes, but it so clearly wants to also be Something More and doesn’t quite accumulate into that. The Revenant stretch is reliant upon episodic survival and the final half hour is about a war charge. I suppose one can be generous and say that Peter’s canny survival skills are overt characterization, or that the environmental threats are representative of a larger hostile world, but the action movie parts were pretty to look at but also emotionally inert for me.
I considered the lead character in 12 Years a Slave to be the least interesting person in his own story, but the movie found plenty of space for more immediately compelling figures. Not so with Emancipation, as once Peter goes on the run, it feels like overall characterization is put on hold. Smith is perfectly reasonable as a determined and dehumanized individual pushing back against the monstrosity of slavery, restricting much of his performance to the physical realm. The sheer intensity of his eyes can convey plenty that the script characterization lacks. Smith lowers his voice modulation, adopts an inconsistent Haitian accent, and gives a rather subdued performance given the sensational material. I think it’s because the film is geared more as an action movie rather than as an in-depth character study, so when we’re left with the characters, their limitations emerge.
This paucity also extends to the supporting characters. At first I thought that Charmaine Bingwa (The Good Fight) was going to be relegated as the suffering wife for our protagonist to get home, but then the movie keeps cutting back to her like she’s having prophetic dreams. What is happening here? The check-ins with Peter’s wife all deliver the same obvious information, namely his family misses him. This woman doesn’t even get a storyline of her own in the meantime, a conflict to overcome to keep her family out of further harm in the absence of Peter. The biggest supporting character is the villain, and even he is boring. Foster made a name for himself playing psychopaths in late 2000s cinema and has matured with more nuanced roles in The Messenger, Hell or High Water, and Leave No Trace. He’s one of our best actors, and yet he’s given so little here. His slave catcher gets a monologue that’s meant to provide insight into his admiration for the intelligence of black people. I kept waiting for something more with this guy to define him beyond a stock racist. I guess maybe the movie is saying he’s not as racist because he begrudgingly concedes that slaves aren’t stupid, but he’s still massacring them, so it feels like a minimal distinction of character. He also gets defeated in such an anticlimactic manner. If he’s only a stock villain, at least give us the thrill of defeating him.
The cinematography by Robert Richardson (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) is at once gorgeous and also confounding. The emphasis is on deep focus, so you can see lots of rich details in elegantly framed compositions. There are sweeping camera movements, especially during the war-torn finale worthy of Matthew Brady, that are breath-taking, again calling attention to its handsomely mounted pedigree. However, the color palette has taken notes from Zack Snyder and drained away all color to the degree of looking monochromatic. Repeatedly throughout the movie, I would comment to myself about how beautifully filmed a scene was… and then complain about how the dour color grading sucked the life out of it.
Emancipation is a genre movie that envisions itself as a high-minded Oscar contender, and when it attempts to be something more than a crisp-looking chase movie, that’s where it exposes itself as lacking the substance it so desires. The life of Peter, or Gordon, is meaningful, the person behind the famous photo of the scarred back that made the cruelty of slavery a vivid picture. The experiences of every person who endured the hell of slavery is an indictment worthy of being told, but the personal story becomes grounded down into familiar B-movie pap. If the production was content to be a thrilling B-movie, that would be one thing, but it’s clearly engineered to be Something More, which is usually adjacent to Something Important. I think following The Revenant as a model was a mistake, and I think giving the reins to Fuqua was a mistake, and I definitely think the limited characterization and color palette was a mistake. Emancipation is a strange movie to watch. It’s about the horrors of slavery, and it’s also at the same time about a man wrestling a gator in the swamp. Emancipation is a movie that wants to pretend to be something it’s not but also won’t fully trust its deeper instincts and impulses.
Nate’s Grade: C+