Emancipation – Review

Cert – 15, Run-time – 2 hours 12 minutes, Director – Antoine Fuqua

Escaped slave Peter (Will Smith) makes his way through the swamplands of Louisiana to try and make his way back to his family, while being hunted down by a murderous slaveowner (Ben Foster).

“There are many ways to die in a swamp” Will Smith’s enslaved Peter is told when he suggests the idea of trying to escape. “There are many ways to die here” he replies, looking around the rebel camp that he finds himself forced to labour in. It’s a point drilled in throughout the opening act of director Antoine Fuqua and writer Bill Collage’s Emancipation as the film refuses to shy away from the cruelty and torture taking place. There’s a harsh, unforced brutality, further captured in the washed-out colour scheme which borders at times on feeling black-and-white. We’re thrown into the setting much like the central character as the film opens with him being taken away from his family and immediately forced to work.

However, after sparking and leading a mass escape Peter finds himself not only trying to survive the swampland but the murderous slaveowner (Ben Foster) constantly following him. What we see pan out is something much closer to a survival film than a slavery drama, particularly with the occasional action-like beats which spring up every now and then. It’s interesting to see Smith’s performance through this, as predominantly through this section he has little lines, although still delivering a strong performance – the consistent highlight of the film. The overall tone appears to change with each act of the film, especially in something of a sidestep in the somewhat drawn-out final stages, however there’s a direct line in a number of elements thanks to Fuqua’s strong direction.

Some of this tonal shifting appears in early glimpses of quiet drama. Instances which play out as more conventionally ‘Oscar-style’ than other surroundings. Particularly in regards to awards contenders of a few years ago. Certain moments play out as if they’re fit to be used as a clip at next year’s Academy Awards. Luckily, while it has been widely suggested that Emancipation may be an awards contender, or at least Apple have been hoping it to be, the film is clearly not made with these in mind. As a whole it avoids an ‘Oscar bait’ feel, if there is any it’s more that which has been imposed on it by those outside of the actual filmmaking process in the build up to release.

While perhaps not likely to be as much of a contender as some may hope – aside from Smith’s excellent central performance – there’s still plenty to like about Emancipation. The tonal shifts are dialled down thanks to Fuqua’s direction and the similar survival film aspects which play into the first two acts. We’re reminded throughout of what Peter is running from and to, pushing the themes forward even more and often meaning that the film as a whole avoids convention during a number of sequences where it truly finds its stride within the survival-like basis. While occasionally sidestepping towards another tone or style for the more direct moments of drama there’s still enough to make an impact – especially in the effective first hour – and keep your interest throughout in the film’s various different forms.

While it might shift tonally with each act, and not quite always land the quieter drama, a strong central performance from Will Smith and effective direction from Antoine Fuqua capture the different survival bases within Emancipation and bring your interest back round after the occasional sidesteps.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

One thought on “Emancipation – Review

  1. I thought Will outdid himself with Richard, But, Damn he and Fuqua knocked it out the park. Great work Will .. Guess What people in the South and other countries still live like that Freedom Ain’t Free. 👏🏽👏🏽✝️


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