Emancipation review: Will Smith’s first post-slap film is difficult to wholeheartedly embrace

Historical action film is primarily concerned with individual heroism to a near-mythic extent

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 01 December 2022 06:00 GMT
Emancipation trailer

We are eight months out from this year’s Academy Awards, where Will Smith slapped presenter Chris Rock after a derogatory joke aimed at his wife Jada Pinkett. He was subsequently barred from attending the ceremony for the next decade. And, now, the actor’s career lies in jeopardy. Several of his projects have stalled. Others, reportedly, have been outright cancelled. His historical action film Emancipation, which had finished production just a few weeks before that fateful Oscar night, cost Apple an estimated $120m, and though the studio has pressed ahead with its scheduled release plan, the debate is still rife over whether they’ve made the right call. Smith himself gets it. “I completely understand,” he told a US journalist in an interview this week. “If someone is not ready, I would absolutely respect that and allow them their space to not be ready.” I also respect people’s choice “to not be ready” to watch Smith act again. But I will ask this: why aren’t the men accused of extensive and repeated sexual abuse excusing me from having to watch their films?

For my own part, I believe there are trickier and more productive conversations to be had about Emancipation. Smith plays Peter, a man who escapes slavery on a Louisiana plantation. He evades the hunters on his tail (their leader, Fassel, is played by Ben Foster), wrestles an alligator, and eventually makes his way to Baton Rouge, the Union Army, and to his freedom. No one should doubt the open-hearted sincerity with which Smith and his director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) view their story as one of empowerment. And some, certainly, will be inclined to see it that way as well. But Emancipation is primarily a film concerned with individual heroism to a near-mythic extent (see: the alligator wrestling). How can that ever sit right with a historical trauma still viciously pumping through America’s bloodstream?

The film is shot by cinematographer Robert Richardson in the desaturated shades of a hand-tinted photograph, as if Emancipation itself were immobilised in a glass museum case. We are seeing Peter not in the vivid reality of his present, but through the fog of history and collective memory – perhaps in tacit acknowledgement that screenwriter William N Collage has, in fact, conflated two real people into one. Emancipation is inspired by an 1863 set of photographs of a Black man known as “Whipped Peter”, which were taken during a Union Army medical examination and first published in Harper’s Weekly. On the man’s back is a crisscross of thick, deep scars – a crystallised reminder, in print, of the whip’s scorn. As the images spread, in print and in postcards, white America could no longer turn away its gaze from the inhumanity of slavery. It was a key turning point in the growth of public opposition.

Today, however, historians believe the photographs, and the story that surrounds them, actually represent separate individuals: one named Peter, the other named Gordon. Emancipation attempts to smooth over the issue by naming a secondary character after the latter, played by Gilbert Owuor. Normally, this contorting of history would sit perfectly in Fuqua’s wheelhouse, but he can’t exactly apply the same rules of heroism here as he did to his King Arthur or his remake of The Magnificent Seven.

We see Peter tear out a door frame with his bare hands. We see him outrun bullets. We see him brave alligator-infested waters while others are punished for their hesitation. He’s exactly the sort of character Smith has always excelled as: men of singular vision, eyes fixed on the horizon. “I’ve seen your papa survive things most men can’t,” Peter’s wife (Charmaine Bingwa’s Dodienne) tells their children. Therein lies the crux of Emancipation’s issues. To make a man a hero, one of truly epic proportions, he must first be placed above his fellow man. He is chosen, whether by God or destiny (Fuqua’s film opts for the former). But, as the film’s own closing titles remind us, 400,000 Black men and women escaped slavery. The “Whipped Peter” images, and the stories behind them, bear such importance precisely because they are in no way unique. And, though there’s no diluting the emotion of Peter – inevitably – revealing his scarred back to the Union Army camera, Emancipation never feels as if it’s truthfully telling the story behind the photograph. Or how one man’s pain became emblematic of an entire nation’s evil.

Dir: Antoine Fuqua. Starring: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Steven Ogg, Mustafa Shakir, Timothy Hutton, Gilbert Owuor. 15, 132 minutes.

‘Emancipation’ is streaming on Apple TV+ from 9 December

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