One of the most anticipated films of the year, not all for the best of reasons, is Will Smith’s follow up to his Academy Award victory, Emancipation. From director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter) the film follows the story of Peter, a runaway slave in Louisiana trying to join the Union army while evading those chasing him. This will likely be one of the more divisive films of the year as Will Smith’s name holds a different kind of weight than it used to so there is certainly a lot of bad press surrounding the film. That being said, those who can look past Smith’s actions at the Oscars will soon find out that his performance is the only thing keeping this film from completely sputtering.
To start off with the positives, Will Smith is as good as we’ve ever seen him in what is perhaps the heaviest performance of his career. It’s a different kind of talent that we’ve seen from him in films like King Richard or The Pursuit of Happyness. There are several moments in the film, one monologue in particular, that feel like your watching a generational talent pour his heart and soul into a role. The other part of the film that deserves praise is the production design. Whether its the labor camps, battlefields, or the swamp, Fuqua’s team did a tremendous job creating scenery for the actor’s to chew through.
After that, there isn’t much to say here. The story wastes no time getting into the plot which makes it hard to develop sentiment for Peter and his family as characters. From there the film feels like a very familiar cat and mouse game with Smith on the run from Jim Fassell (Ben Foster) and his team of overseers. I believe that Ben Foster is one of the great unrecognized character actors working today and has been for more than a decade or so, especially when it comes to playing antagonists, but he feels oddly underutilized in a role you’d expect him to crush. But my biggest issue with the film is the cinematography. The film is presented mostly in black and white with occasional splashes of color from fire and blood. It’s a shame because the sets built for this movie were so great yet the decision to show everything in black and white does nothing to elevate to project. Perhaps this choice was made to reflect the photography of the era or it was a more metaphorical meaning about the world being black and white. Whatever the reason, the film just doesn’t look that great.
At two hours and twenty minutes the film does drag on at points. No spoilers but one the major storylines in the film ends abruptly and never really recovers from there aside from Smith flexing on the script. The film also struggles to flesh out its supporting cast as more often than not anyone that isn’t Smith or Foster comes and goes without adding much to the story. I enjoy many of Fuqua’s films though this one feels a lot like Southpaw in that outside of the action he struggles to develop strong characters despite getting a great performance from his lead.
I’d be shocked to see Emancipation make much of a splash during the awards season. Smith’s past actions likely eliminate any shot of him being nominated and if it makes any noise its going to be in either Production Design or Makeup & Hairstyling. Surely Apple will be disappointed with this as this film was likely their biggest contender to repeat following their CODA win last year. But it’s never too late for a last minute Cha Cha Real Smooth campaign!
This film will have to go down as one of the biggest disappointments of the year, even for Will Smith fans. Again, I loved his performance but it’s just not enough to pick up the slack for the rest of the film. Emancipation is now playing on Apple TV.
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