‘Emancipation’ Is An Expensive Movie That Feels Cheap

Like Don’t Worry Darling before it, Emancipation was one of those films where the pre-release drama over its promotion vastly overshadowed the movie it was meant to promote. The early talk was all about Will Smith’s Oscars slap, whether the Academy would accept him again (after barring him from the ceremony for 10 years) and whether his “apology tour,” with stops at The Daily Show for an intense sit down with Trevor Noah, would work on awards voters. All those questions seem irrelevant in light of the actual movie, which feels more like a cheapo February streamer than a $120 million awards contender.

My personal take on “The Slap” is that it wasn’t some isolated moment when a beloved star did something so beyond the pale that we’re all now struggling with what contrition should look like (as some truly deranged editorials, comparing the incident to gun violence, would have you believe). It was just the moment when the general public realized Will Smith’s whole act was getting kind of stale. Stardom is a bit like a magic spell, and you never know what’s going to break it. The Slap itself is hard to separate from Smith coming back an hour later to call himself “a river to my people” while collecting an award for his hammy, goofily accented performance in King Richard. Him going on talk shows to apologize for it now feels like more of same; he’d been performing introspection for so long that it had begun to look more like image management.

So now that Smith is back, playing another heroic patriarch with another conspicuous(ly bad) accent (his character, Peter, grew up in Haiti), it’s once again hard to separate character choices from career choices. When Peter makes a big speech and Will Smith’s lip quivers portentously, you mostly just think Boy, Will Smith sure is trying hard to win that second Oscar, isn’t he?

I’m not saying actors can’t be careerist or want to be recognized for their work (they obviously are and do, just like most of the rest of us), it’s just that the bond between performer and audience is fickle. The audience wants to buy into the illusion, but if the performer doesn’t change up the shtick every so often all we’ll see is the levers and pulleys. Peter’s quavery lips and resolute speeches seem… familiar? A lot like Dr. Bennett Omalu saying “Tell the truth!” in the Concussion trailer. What do we make of this guy who refuses to play anything but courageous fathers, anyway?

Directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Bill Collage, Emancipation is an origin story for “Whipped Peter,” aka Gordon, aka The Scourged Back, a famous photo of a slave with a scarred back that Fuqua described as “the first viral image of the brutality of slavery that the world saw.” (Producer Joey McFarland brought his original print of the photo to the red carpet premiere, which people thought was a little weird, him carrying around that thing like it was a Honus Wagner baseball card).

One look at the resumes of the respective principals might’ve told McFarland that this would be a weird fit. The writer of Assassin’s Creed, The Transporter Refueled, and Exodus: Gods And Kings writing a triumphant, escaped slave story (weirdly compared to George Floyd in multiple stories of its acquisition) for the Oscar-winning star of King Richard sounds a little off, and it is. Fuqua, director of Training Day and Infinite, last year’s reincarnated samurai Mark Wahlberg movie (which I actually loved), seems to do great with heels and unabashed genre movies — things that Will Smith, the ultimate babyface, never makes.

Fuqua’s confusion comes through even in Emancipation‘s color scheme, which is shot in black and white for some reason, or at least a highly desaturated brown filter that might as well be black and white. These days, black and white signifies to the viewer that the content is meant to be artistic, historical, or both, or maybe just that it’s awards season.

In any case, Emancipation ends up being what movie people used to call “a feathered fish,” a project that doesn’t quite know what it is or who it’s for. In this case, about two-thirds semi-successful chase movie, one-third failed Oscar bait, and a dash of Jesus. Peter starts out as a slave on a Confederate captain’s plantation. After running afoul of the overseers, he seizes the moment to try to escape through the swamp to find Lincoln’s Army at Baton Rouge (“Leeng con,” Peter sometimes mutters to himself like a mantra). Hot on Peter’s heels is the menacing slave catcher, Jim, played by Ben Foster in a straw hat and beard with no mustache that make him look like an Amish Bond villain. In order to find leeng con, Peter must dodge dogs, bugs, mud, bogs, traitors, and gators, fleeing for his life and scrounging for food, chewing up wild onions to try to keep the dogs off his scent.

Easily Emancipation‘s strongest bit is this The Revenant chunk, which aims at schlocky watchability and hits the mark. Inevitably though, Will Smith has to talk again and you remember that too-conspicuous accent; his stock acting faces. Fuqua is notably great at shooting Peter’s feats of survival. There’s a moment when Peter steals water from a nice southern mansion, where an adorable freckle-faced little girl is on the porch having a nice birthday party. She catches a glimpse of Peter skulking around the edges of the grounds and immediately turns Body Snatchers on him, shrieking “RUNNER!”

You can imagine a white director maybe softening that bit. It’s better that Fuqua doesn’t. Yet for as good as he is in those lean, genre moments, he’s equally bad at expansive Civil War battle scenes, which lack any spatial awareness let alone coherent tactics, and are so poorly staged that they just end up looking sort of cheap. And you can’t just “yadda yadda” what’s meant to be a climactic battle scene.

Throughout, Peter urges his fellows to have faith, prays over the dying, and generally reminds his family that the God he knows is good; his source of strength and not his tormentor. So… is this a genre movie, an arthouse release, or a faith-based allegory? I don’t think the team behind Emancipation quite figured that out.

‘Emancipation’ is available now, only on AppleTV. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.