Let’s get this out of the way, shall we? Emancipation is the first film Will Smith has starred in since he slapped Chris Rock on stage at the Academy Awards in March. What should have been a much- anticipated follow up to his Oscar-winning turn in King Richard now stands as a test to see whether there is still an appetite to see the star in major roles.
Emancipation is based on a real person, known as ‘Whipped Peter’ in a series of photographs that showed the violence of slavery to the wider public in the 1860s. The story dramatises Peter’s (Smith) escape from his captors as America moves toward emancipation, and his journey through treacherous terrain with unscrupulous slavers in pursuit.
Not every film featuring slavery has to be a straight drama – Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained viewed the brutality of the subject through populist means. However, Antoine Fuqua’s thriller strikes the wrong tone for a variety of reasons.
Historically inaccurate from the beginning, character development is sorely missing from this journey on both sides of the divide. The white slave owners are snarling monsters with little other than rants to explain the psychology of such cruelty.
Equally, the enslaved characters have little dimension, there to suffer without much of a sense of the people, The cat-and-mouse chase is led by two noted actors, both of whom fall short of expectations. Ben Foster is suitably despicable as the hunter looking for Peter, but the script denies him anything beyond a cartoonish villainy.
Smith, meanwhile, is an overly stoic lead who just doesn’t deliver the emotional punch needed for a film with these ambitious. Delivering religious maxims as a substitute for personality, it’s a far cry from the nuance that won him so much praise in King Richard.
There are many things that make Emancipation fall short of its aspirations and hefty budget (a reported $120million). Many of the headlines will focus on its star, but considering the subject matter every element of this drab thriller should have been better.