Stream or skip? +2023

emancipation (now continue AppleTV+) is Will Smith’s first film since winning an Oscar (for King Richard) and garnered heaps of public scorn (for slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars). So it better be a GOOD movie, right? Right. It’s a BOATS (Based On A True Story) film and a two-hour chase about a guy known in the story only as Gordon, a former enslaved man who was the subject of a famous photograph showing the scars on his back shows that come from the flogging. He became a symbol of the abolitionist movement, but the film isn’t about that; Rather, it is a fictionalized version of his escape from a Louisiana plantation, directed by the prolific Antoine Fuqua (training day, infinity, The equalizer).

The essentials: Peter (Smith) washes the tired feet of his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa). Your children are sitting nearby. He prays. And then the men come for him – the workers, the overseers of the plantation. They drag him away fighting. He stomps on one man and bites another, but he is outnumbered. He goes into the cage cart with the other slaves. Dodienne and the children will continue to pick cotton in the fields while Peter and many other black men build railroad tracks under the supervision of cruel white men. Civil war is raging not far away. The armies of the north penetrate deep into Louisiana. Explosions occur regularly around Peter, but the conflict is not between man and man, but between man and nature, as workers use dynamite to clear paths through the forest. The trains will go through with guns for the south.

The Wardens are fiery-eyed men, cruel and vicious. Peter is a deeply spiritual man who reminds his fellow slaves that “God is with us” in dark moments, such as when he sits and watches the slave traders brand a black man on his cheek. He howls in pain until he is taken to the corral, where he growls at Peter, “God is not with you. He’s nowhere!” Peter replies, “I don’t know why God shows himself to some and not to others.” That is, he moves in mysterious ways—enough to further solidify a man’s faith, enough to cause a man’s disillusionment to encourage others.

The leader of this endeavor is Fassel (Ben Foster), who is much calmer than the other men. He sits cross-legged, puffing on a corncob whistle, the dog at his side. His eyes are cold. He’s a sociopath. He’ll kill a black man with a bullet without even thinking about it. During the hustle and bustle of the workday, Peter hears that the North has taken Baton Rouge – a five-day trek through the swamp. He watches a black man fall and literally work himself to death. Peter’s orders to drag the body into a mass grave and shovel lye into the stinking pit. The first shovel goes in, and the second in the face of an overseer, provoking a hasty revolt. he fights He grabs a knife. He falls into the forest. Three fugitives follow him, and behind them Fassel and two of his men and three dogs. Ahead lies stagnant swamps, alligators, swarms of mosquitoes, and god knows what else – certainly other horrible men – but what he leaves behind is undoubtedly worse.

Where to see the Will Smith film Emancipation
Photo: Apple / Quantrell Colbert

Which movies will it remind you of?: emancipation combines the sometimes breakneck chase through the wilderness of apocalypto with the civil war battles of glory and slavery era bios Harriet and The Birth of a Nation.

Notable performance: The script doesn’t give Smith much to work with, so he downplays, stays focused, and nonverbally characterizes Peter as a man of pride, perseverance, and determination.

Memorable dialogue: Peter pleads for an escape attempt with an enslaved fellow human being:

“There are many ways to die in the swamp.”

“There are many ways to die here.”

gender and skin: none.

Our opinion: Fuqua shoots emancipation drained of almost all colour, almost black and white – forest green is grey, brown is muted and the only defining colors are red blood from Peter’s wounds, splattered on the foliage for dogs to follow, and the blazing orange of fire. The aesthetic suggests an arid, empty moral landscape, despite the natural beauty of the Louisiana swamplands. Crawling through mud and trudging through knee-high swamp, Peter arrives at horror scene after horror scene: Another plantation where the kids are trained to yell “runners!” and ring a warning bell. A house on fire, the grounds littered with bodies from another slave rebellion. A battlefield where the earth is torn to shreds and smoking. A world where one person enslaves another is bleached, ugly and torn.

Beyond that, the film offers little substance. There’s a moment when an alligator leaps out of the water to grab Peter by his shirt tail and drag him underwater, and it’s absolutely shocking because the film previously seemed rooted in intricately rendered realism. From there, emancipation does not expand his characters, but narrows them down to the parameters of exploitation: Peter as the righteous and noble man who will do anything – however improbable, like defeating a swamp alligator with a knife – to gain freedom and to reunite his family. And Fassel is a one-note snake, quiet and uncharismatic, leaving Foster no room for psychological intimidation or even affectation. A couple of times the narration cuts from Peter to Dodienne and the kids, and they’re given so little relevant screen time that you wonder why the scenes weren’t cut entirely.

Using the anti-slavery struggle in America and the meager details of Gordon’s story as an excuse to direct a tepid action-hunt movie leaves a bad taste in the mouth. emancipation wastes Smith, a movie star whose ability to fully embody characters has blossomed over the years, as well as Fuqua’s instincts as an inspired visual director. What the film offers us is Smith running and running and running with an unvarying expression of dismay, and Fuqua stringing together a B-movie behind the facade of prestige. Gordon’s photo speaks volumes; this film “about” him has next to nothing to say.

Our appeal: SKIP IT. emancipation is a disappointment as a drama and an action movie.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more about his work below

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