When Lincoln declared that all salves were free on January 1st, 1863 by signing the Emancipation Proclamation; slaves all around the United States were not so easily released by their slave owners. Much of the confederacy in the Southern states were told of Lincoln’s news, but would refuse to give up what they thought of to themselves as their ‘property’. Antoine Fuqua’s latest film Emancipation tells the harrowing story of a runaway slave named Peter (Will Smith), who manages to catch wind of Lincoln’s address to the nation, and leads a small band of brothers through the treacherous swamps of Louisiana to try and make it back to his family intact. Peter’s story is based on a real-life slave named Gordon, who had been photographed to provide the proof of the ruthlessness that slavery created, which are some of the most well-known slavery photos of all time.
Although much of this film is centered around one of the most torturous timeframes in United States history; this story is more focused around Peter and his shear willpower to cross hazardous terrain to see his family once again. Peter’s journey would not be so easy though, as the film opens with him being sold off away from his family and taken far from his family to work under the watchful eye of Fassel (Ben Foster), a very mellow, and seemingly non-threatening slave owner (at first). Peter hears of Lincoln’s address to the nation and decides to gather as many people around him as he can to escape when they get the chance, and they do so. Its from here where Peter is not only chased by the slave owners he is running away from, with their dogs also in pursuit, but Peter also has to navigate the dangerous swamps for a projected 5-day journey on foot trying to avoid the animals and reptiles lurking within and eventually joining up with the Army.
A lot of controversy was expected going into this film, as a lot of people are still very upset with Will Smith’s slap heard around the world to comedian, and fellow actor, Chris Rock. Admittedly, I too was a bit weary of Will Smith’s swift return to cinema, but under the direction of Antoine Fuqua, who had previously directed many other great films ranging from one of my favorites, Training Day, to other films such as Shooter, and Tears of the Sun; I went into this film cautiously optimistic that Antoine would be able to handle the source material of this important historical event, and Will Smith’s comeback to cinema with care. To continue, I’d personally say that Antoine Fuqua does as best as he could to try and provide an uncomfortable action-thriller, and Will Smith is able to capture a lot of emotional and dramatic direction, stealing some really great scenes throughout the film. I felt as though Will Smith was able to pass a familial attachment through his facial expressions, especially since much of the movie he isn’t vocal at all. I was frequently taken out of the drama as I kept noticing weird background images which looked very unrealistic as if I could see the green screen itself through the sepia tone. Additionally, Fassel (Ben Foster) was incredibly compelling, and very menacing and it was quite a ride following his chase.
So, is the movie worth watching? My honest opinion is it depends. On one hand, Will Smith and Ben Foster play off each other so well with each other through the duration of the film, but the last third of the movie I felt the pacing slipping drastically, and it was difficult to maintain focus. Stylistically, there were moments where I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, but other moments I was taken out by what seemingly felt flat, and just plain fabricated. Overall, this film isn’t bad, but it isn’t something I would necessarily tell someone to rush out and see. If you have Apple+, then I’d say give it a go, and if you don’t like it; turn to something else.
Written By: Dimitreus Newell