“Emancipation” is exploitative in the most unpleasant way. Director Antoine Fuqua‘s film is inspired by a true story, but by mingling various genres (thriller, action, historical drama) and with a needlessly Oscar-baity performance from Will Smith, the most important and more interesting aspect of the narrative are overshadowed and lost in the commotion.
Peter (Smith) is a runaway slave who, after he’s nearly killed by plantation owners, takes matters into his own hands and decides to escape his oppressive situation. He must survive his quest for freedom by navigating the dangerous swamps of Louisiana, relying on his wits and love for his family to keep one step ahead of the killers in pursuit.
As strong as Smith’s performance is in the lead role, very little about the film works. The role of Peter is physically demanding and he pulls it off, but the majority of the message is lost in a run-of-the-mill chase thriller. Slavery is one of America’s darkest chapters in history, and this story deserved far better.
It’s a trial to sit through, and feels like a Will Smith ego project gone awry. It’s also a really weird action movie that’s also a Civil War era slavery drama that feels at odds with itself. For example, Peter exposes horrifying scars on his back from enduring years of abuse and brutality at the hands of his slave masters, but the horror and anger of it all is all but negated by another scene of Peter wrestling alligators (yes, really). This makes the film ring emotionally hollow, which is a real shame.
By: Louisa Moore