After the Will Smith and Chris Rock controversy at last year’s Oscars, many have made Smith out to be public enemy number one. Smith’s actions remain unacceptable in every way. Yet, at the same time, the reaction has felt extremely over-reactive. Many questioned if Smith would ever work again, as many projects of his were canceled. In fact, Emancipation, originally scheduled for 2022, already coveted Oscar nominations. While the events of last year’s ceremony made it impossible for Smith to find traction in the awards race, Emancipation drew tremendous talent. AppleTV+ chose to rip off the band-aid, moving forward with the release of their epic slave film. Director Antoine Fuqua provides Smith with an extremely physical and emotional role, the kind Oscar has salivated over in the past. However, Fuqua’s lack of a handle on pacing and artistic framing submarines Emancipation as it attempts to tell its story.

A father and a slave, Peter (Smith) has been sold to one of the most dangerous work camps in the Civil War. However, when given the chance to escape, Peter flees into the swamps. A slave hunter (Ben Foster) pursues Peter, willing to take him back dead if needed. As Peter struggles for survival, his family must find methods of staying together on the plantation.

Smith delivers a powerhouse emotional performance, pushing the limits of his character’s mental state. The full-body transformation becomes apparent as Smith moves between environments. Not only does he carry himself differently than any previous action film, but he’s dons practical prosthetics to alter his appearance. At times, he appears stronger than any man on Earth, despite a lean build. In other scens, his frailty becomes impossible to ignore. His fight against the environment and deeply corrupt forces would make this one of the best performances of his career on its own terms.

As Smith works through the sinew of the role, he also showcases a more unique vision for Peter. He imbues Peter with a struggle with faith, and while this feels more like a hat on a hat, Smith crafts moments to show its impact on Peter’s crumbling psyche. Peter simply wishes to be seen as a human being, and by extension, believe that his faith will be rewarded. It does not consume the story of Emancipation, but it does provide subtext to many of Smith’s performance choices.

In many ways, Fuqua captures a holocaust vibe within his depiction of the South in the Civil War. This version of the South shows all the heartbreak and violence we know was present in the south. When Smith draws us in with his giant eyes, Fuqua allows atrocities and play out on his face. This is preferable to having the audience watch the more deplorable aspects of slavery. At the same time, allowing Smith to deliver reactions to these horrors forces the audience to live in the mental anguish these acts caused any who witnessed them.

Fuqua remains an uneven director, and this hurts Emancipation at times. In fact, the story becomes rather cyclical at times. Smith battles something in the environment. Smith escapes from the slave catchers. Another black man suffers at the hands of the slavers. Smith moves onto his next challenge. This ends up being a problem for Emancipation, as it can never truly get the second act of the movie to flow. The weight of the runtime becomes a burden, and by the time Smith can find his agency, we have mostly checked out of the story.

This only becomes worse when we “check in” on the other characters of the film. Unlike other narratives, we flash to Peter’s family, which undercuts the tension of the film’s finale. Rather than wondering if all of Peter’s journey might have been for naught, Fuqua’s choice to cut back the family removes all tension from this part of the story. Instead, he attempts to create this tension through sheer visual violence. No matter how much gore Fuqua creates in other aspects, the lack of tension sinks Emancipation. Even worse, cutting to these characters never helps to build them out in our minds, which leaves them as flat in the context of the narrative.

Perhaps that was always the plan, so that Smith’s journey would remain our focus. However, cutting to the family adds time and takes away that focus. It harms Emancipation to the point where we question why we are watching long swaths of the story. If no other characters are drawn out, we are left with a story about a single man. That might have been more interesting, but instead, we spend time with characters that ultimately feel like wallpaper.

Frustrations about the darkness and violence have a place. After all, the slave narrative has been the default for too many black stories. Unfortunately, that critiques the kinds of stories created, not Emancipation in particular. Since Emancipation chooses to be a slave narrative, it deserves praise for its unflinching views on a subject. Currently, some in our culture look to erase these stories out of fear. What does it say about America if the darkest aspects of our culture cannot find open spaces to discuss our faults? These are stories of triumph over hate, stories of the “other” rising up and finding its power. They are also stories of incredible cruelty.

No one will ever be judged by this critic if they choose to skip out on Emancipation because of the violence depicted. However, this confirms that its easier to hide from America’s sins than it is to confront them. In a world trying to suppress and erase these narratives, we must remind ourselves of their value. Even if we find discomfort in these stories, with an actor like Smith, there is value. Its a shame Smith overshadowed his own story through his actions away from the camera.

Alan’s Rating: 6/10

What did you think of Emmancipation? Let us know in the comments below! Emmancipation is currently streaming on AppleTV+.

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Emancipation Will Smith Antoine Fuqua AppleTV+

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