‘Emancipation’ Review: An Emotional Will Smith Carries a Familiar Slavery Story

And with that, the Will Smith post-slap era officially begins.

“Emancipation” follows a slave (Will Smith) who escapes his Louisiana plantation in an effort to reach the Union Army in 1863. Ben Foster and Charmaine Bingwa also star while Antoine Fuqua directs.

The rights to this film were bought by Apple TV+ for $130 million, with the clear ambition of having it turn into an awards player for the streamer that won Best Picture this past year with “CODA.” I’m not sure this will end up resulting in enough bang to justify Apple’s buck, but “Emancipation” is a sincere and well (enough) made film about a tough subject matter, and features one of Will Smith’s better performances.

All jokes about Will Smith’s slap of Chris Rock aside, I was a fan of his performance in last year’s “King Richard” and was happy to see him win his first Oscar (though it should’ve been Andrew Garfield giving an acceptance speech for “tick, tick…BOOM!”). Here Smith is quiet but effective, keeping his faith in God despite living as an enslaved man. He isn’t given too much to actually do or emote besides “run through swamp, hide from slavers, rinse, repeat” but he does those things well.

I’m a fan of director Antoine Fuqua when he makes R-rated action flicks like “Shooter” and “Olympus Has Fallen” (he can keep his PG-13 films like “Infinite” and “Magnificent Seven”). “Emancipation” is his most serious and grounded work to-date, and he mostly handles it well. The pace is pretty good (though at 132 minutes it is certainly a touch bloated), the emotional beats hit, and the moments involving slavery and racism are gritty without ever feeling exploitive.

Similarly to this fall’s “Women Talking,” the color grading here is baffling and off-putting. I’m not sure if Fuqua and cinematographer Robert Richardson (who has won three Oscars for his work with Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese) are going for a “Schindler’s List” aesthetic, but the film features a muted black-and-white palette with occasional splashes of red to emphasize the likes of blood or the American flag. The whole thing just looks rather ugly, and at times your brain struggles to register whether the film is actually black-and-white or simply washed and desaturated (though the climax battle sequence benefits from it thanks to the smoke of war and brutality of battle).

The film certainly has the aroma of Oscar-bait surrounding it, and while it never drags you can certainly see plot points or scenes that could’ve been removed in order to trim the fat. But “Emancipation” is an admirable effort from its director and star, and while we’ve seen Civil War and slavery films done before and done better (namely “Glory,” from which this film steals a scene beat-for-beat), I didn’t feel like I had wasted my time once the credits started to roll.

Critics Rating: 6/10

Apple TV+

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s