Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Premise: Based on true events. Set in Louisiana near the end of the American Civil War, an enslaved man (Will Smith) escapes and runs toward Union forces. He’s tracked by a bounty hunter (Ben Foster).
What Works: Emancipation is a gritty and action-oriented slave escape narrative. The early portion of the story takes place on a plantation and at a railroad worksite and the film takes the viewer on a tour of slavery and the conditions under which these people were abused and exploited. The filmmakers recreate the era with a feel for the time and place. The locations do not come across like a Hollywood set. The setting is visceral with a vivid feel for the humidity and the grime. Filmmaker Antoine Fuqua has frequently made action-oriented movies including Tears of the Sun, the Equalizer films, and Training Day. Emancipation may be his best work as an action filmmaker. The camera movement and the way the picture maintains tension are impressive. Also notable is the use of color. Emancipation is mostly black and white but some scenes are tinted with a slight blue or sepia tone that imitate nineteenth century photography. Certain elements are colorized, namely flames and blood, but mostly in a subtle way. Emancipation looks like historical photographs come to life and those color choices add some organic reality to the filmmaking style. The picture includes two impressive performances, primarily Will Smith as the escaped slave Peter. Along with his performance in King Richard, Smith has recently been doing some character work that make this the most interesting period of his career. Smith’s character is of Haitian descent and he nails the accent while also carrying both dignity and rage in his performance. Also impressive is Ben Foster as a bounty hunter. Foster plays this character as more than just a mustache twirling racist and his intelligence and articulateness makes him frightening.
What Doesn’t: Emancipation is in many respects unpleasant to watch. The early portions of the film dramatize the savagery and inhumanity of slavery and that unpleasantness is appropriate to the subject matter. However, the film is also unrelentingly bleak so that it becomes monotonous. The tone remains consistent virtually all the way through. There is no rise and fall of emotion. As a result, Emancipation becomes exhausting and its big emotional moments don’t pay off because of the lack of contrast. Emancipation is primarily presented in black and white with some tinting of the imagery. The picture is sometimes muddy with details obscured, especially the facial features of the Black actors.
Disc extras: On AppleTV.
Bottom Line: Emancipation succeeds as action-oriented historical filmmaking. It’s technical qualities are mixed but the picture works as a stylized portrait of human dignity and resistance in the face of cruelty.
Episode: #935 (January 15, 2023)