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Emancipation review – distressing and intense epic about the horrors of slavery

Will Smith's first "post-slap" performance elevates a sometimes-impressive, sometimes-misfiring drama from Antoine Fuqua

After keeping his last film – the Jake Gyllenhaal-starring remake of The Guilty – confined to one single office floor, director Antoine Fuqua now tackles perhaps the most expansive scope of his career with Emancipation, sweeping through Civil War-era Louisiana to capture the horrors of slavery, combat, and the swamplands of America’s Deep South. It’s a grand and solemn drama that also comes freighted with the unfair baggage of being Will Smith’s first “post-slap” film, though Fuqua and Smith do overcome the shadow of that overblown controversy with a stirring but also often clunky epic fuelled by a powerful star turn from Smith.

He plays Peter, a somewhat fictionalised version of “Whipped Peter” (the escaped slave whose horrific whip-induced scarring was captured in infamous photographs that further galvanised the American abolition movement). After being sold by his owner to the Confederate Army and hearing of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Peter manages to escape the military camp and begins a five-day journey to the encampments of the Union Army through Louisiana’s dense swamps. From start to finish, Peter’s ordeal is a harrowing one. Fuqua captures the constant violence and terror of slavery in long takes through the plantations and camps, casual brutality meted out everywhere while more prominent and prolonged displays of sadism are genuinely distressing.

The production values here are impressive, giant exterior sets filled with extras really bringing you into this world, which is why Emancipation’s horrible colour grade is so baffling and disappointing. Very desaturated without committing to being actually black-and-white, it uglifies proceedings, which does make some thematic sense but actively undoes a lot of the immersive design work being done elsewhere, keeping Peter’s journey a fragment of the past, far away from a modern America that still hasn’t actually come close to really reckoning with the sins of its history.

After his escape, Peter doesn’t find much in the way of safety or salvation – especially with savage slave-hunter Jim Fassel (Ben Foster) on his trail. The swamps of Louisiana are fraught with dangers and disgust, from the omnipresent mud and bugs to alligator attacks in deep, murky waters. Even the Union camp doesn’t represent true freedom, racist generals openly discussing “the negro question” and sending Black battalions on, essentially, suicide missions. It’s here that Emancipation makes its switch from chase movie to war movie, and it’s in the latter that Fuqua feels most comfortable. There are undeniable thrills as Peter dashes through the wilderness – especially in a really surreal sequence where he stumbles upon a mysteriously destroyed plantation house – but the pacing gets quite janky at points.

On the battlefield, Fuqua is on steadier ground, marshalling the carnage with a keen sense of scale and precise geography, the large budget afforded by the Apple funding really making itself known. Within all this grandiosity, Smith provides a strong and powerful centre, giving an often wordless performance that conveys both Peter’s fear and his fury, an indomitable will and devout faith allowing him to fight through his pain. Smith’s best moments are in Peter’s silent reflection and loneliness, as well as the pure physicality of a desperate escape, while the centrepiece scene of Peter revealing his scars to the photographers is suitably wrenching.

His dialogue scenes fall flatter, but this can’t really be laid at Smith’s feet. Writer William Collage’s script is really clunky, exposition given in flat monologues that rarely feel natural while a lot of the conversations are just very generic. Smith and Foster have the presence to overcome the thin writing, as does Mustafa Shakir as a Black captain in the Union Army, but it reduces most of the cast to ciphers, most problematically Peter’s wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), left behind when Peter is first sold off.

Emancipation is a film that does a lot right, but trips itself up just as often. For every moment of excellent, big-budget historical filmmaking, there’s a stylistic misstep, while the feeble script requires a Herculean effort from Smith to really land it. It’s an effort that he successfully gives, though, and while the Academy are still unlikely to honour him for it, it’s yet more proof that Smith is still a bona fide Movie Star, and no amount of Hollywood pearl-clutching can really change that.

Emancipation is released in UK cinemas and Apple TV+ on 9 December.

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