With Sarah Polley’s Women Talking and now Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation, desaturated cinematography seems to have replaced black-and-white as the new stylistic craze for the year. The thematic reasoning behind the decision is sound (the morally gray dilemma in Women Talking, the ultra-grim circumstances in Emancipation), but the results are far from pleasing to the eye. To paraphrase Roger Ebert: I admire what they’re doing, and I hate it.
Thankfully, the garish photography, which stings just a little more considering it’s supplied by three-time Oscar winner and Scorsese/Stone/Tarantino handyman Robert Richardson, doesn’t prohibit Emancipation from reaching its lofty ambitions. This is a nightmarish retelling of a true American horror story, one that shook the world to its score over 150 years ago, and should continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
If not for “The Slap” which transpired only eight months ago when Will Smith assaulted Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars, the King Richard star would likely find himself back there as a nominee this year. I have no sympathy for Smith after what he did. Still, his worthy performance here would honorably fill that vacant last slot in Best Lead Actor behind presumed locks Austin Butler, Colin Farrell, Brendan Fraser, and Bill Nighy. If nothing else, it would also prevent Hugh Jackman from being nominated in a much more heinous film that is Florian Zeller’s The Son.
But the past is the past, and we must now view Emancipation through the lens of a less likable Will Smith. Here he plays Peter (inspired by the true story of Gordon), a Haitian-born slave we are introduced to as he is being sold away from his family. He promises to return to them, no matter the obstacles in his way. His unwavering faith in God provides him the strength to endure the inhumane treatment he receives at a Confederate army camp near the swamps of Louisiana.
While there, rumors start to swirl that president Abraham Lincoln has freed the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation. Knowing that their captors won’t give them their freedom willingly, Peter and others decide they must take it. They flee from their chains and head towards Baton Rouge, where friendly Union soldiers await. “Follow the sound of Lincoln’s cannons” is their north star as they trek through the treacherous terrain, all with a sadistic bounty hunter (Ben Foster) hot on their trail.
One of the more unexpected things to come from Emancipation is Fuqua’s in-your-face grisly depiction of slavery and general life in the mid-1800s. Captured runaway slaves are beheaded and placed on stakes, others are branded, and many more die because of the grueling working conditions that promote disease and famine.
Fuqua also leans into his action director pedigree to bring elements of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, such as extended long takes and the beastly monsters that await in the murky swamp water. A fight with an alligator is one of a few moments where this aggressively-serious film finds itself trying too hard to be “entertaining.” There’s also a large-scale Civil War battle that must have been added to justify the film’s $100 million budget, even if it creakily undermines the more minimalist approach to the first ninety minutes.
Overarching all of this is the emotional honesty that Smith’s performance lends to the story of Peter. Dialogue is seldom used as his character overcomes the unimaginable with stoicism. Facial expressions do most of the talking, most noticeable when he is staged for the famous “Whipped Peter” photograph that told the story of American slavery to the rest of the world.
Emancipation will likely not be the comeback vehicle that Smith desperately needs, but it was also never designed to be that. Through his clumsy past actions, he has turned away most audiences that were likely already on the fence about watching this daunting slave drama. That’s a shame because it means he has wasted a powerful performance that deserves to be seen by more than just the tiny audience it will now attract.
*Emancipation will be released on Apple TV+ on December 09*