Emancipation Synopsis: Peter (Will Smith), a runaway slave, forges through the swamps of Louisiana on a tortuous journey to escape plantation owners that nearly killed him. Based on a true story.
A runaway slave transforms into a symbol of resiliency in the Apple TV+ Oscar hopeful, Emancipation. For acclaimed Training Day director Antonie Fuqua, Emancipation marks another attempt at adding to a vital moment in United States history.
Tackling the hardships and lingering racial prejudice stemming from slavery in the US is an exceedingly tricky challenge for filmmakers. While some features, like 12 Years a Slave and Harriet, convey the gravity and unfortunate relevance of their portrayals, others, such as Free State of Jones and Birth of a Nation, offer trite regurgitations that drown under the significance of their subject matter.
With Emancipation, Fuqua and screenwriter Bill Collage center their focus on an escaped slave who became an inspirational figurehead during the Civil War. While admittedly conventional, Emancipation registers a strong impact through its evocative craft and undeniable empathy.
Fuqua is a beloved filmmaker in Hollywood for his adept work elevating traditional action titles like The Equilizer and Olympus Has Fallen. With Emancipation, Fuqua reaches new heights in his visceral craft. He and cinematographer Robert Richardson implement a washed-out color scheme that could quickly feel redundant in the wrong hands. Here, the stylistic choice is executed with remarkable thought and precision.
Fuqua's tempered visual vision serves as a sobering tool to communicate the lingering despair onscreen. Peter, his family, and his escapee peers are ensnared in a black-and-white reality where they are the subjects of brutality and constant degradation. The achromatic visual profile and intimate framing choices elicit potent responses, with Fuqua and Richardson unearthing the raw anguish existing under the character's somber states without drifting into uncomfortable exploitation. Fuqua also imbues his trademark skills as a Hollywood craftsman. The film's grand, lived-in sets and mud-ridden imagery help define an arresting sense of place across Peter's harrowing journey.
As Peter and his peers push through a deadly trek across the southern swamps, Emancipation gradually morphs into a tale of hope amidst dire circumstances. Fuqua and Collage mindfully balance the story's hardships with a silver lining of optimism, ultimately understanding Peter's significance as a symbol of undying perseverance. Fuqua displays delicate tact throughout Emancipation as he marries potentially dissident sensibilities into a cohesive package.
I will say, Emancipation is far more effective in communicating its ideals through imagery rather than writing. Collage's screenplay is marred in one too many contrived speeches and Hollywood devices, including a bizarre blending of real-world history that will rightfully turn away some viewers. I wish Collage had incorporated more substantive reflections within his material and relied less on the type of artificial plotting tools viewers would find in most historical retellings. At its worst, Emancipation can occasionally feel like the type of respectable yet shallow historical feature I remember watching in social studies classes growing up.
Fortunately for Emancipation, a skilled ensemble cast consistently grounds the material in infectious humanity. Will Smith offers some of his most understated work to date as the soft-spoken Peter, quietly reckoning with the character's plights while gradually discovering his agency amidst trials and tribulations. In addition, Ben Foster is fittingly menacing as a slave owner tracking Peter's trail, and Charmaine Bingwa steals several scenes as Peter's devoted wife.
Emancipation does not tread new waters, but the film still finds success as a stirring reminder of an essential chapter in history.
Emancipation is now playing in theaters and on Apple TV+.