Any discussion of “Emancipation” will inevitably be clouded by the Will Smith of it all, and Apple’s decision to release the movie into the teeth of awards season. The focus will thus skew toward Smith and lingering fallout from “the slap” during last year’s Oscars, and away from an earnest, handsome film that’s generally solid but unspectacular enough to render that conversation largely moot.
Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) has teamed with writer William N. Collage to craft an elaborate plot around the real-life 1863 photo known as “Whipped Peter,” starkly illustrating the ravages slavery inflicted on the back of a man who escaped bondage after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Peter’s story thus becomes the spine of a grueling escape adventure, shot in striking black and white that only seems to heighten the harrowing nature of his flight, the dankness of the Louisiana swamps and the brutality that it entails.
Taken to work laying railroad track, Peter overhears word of Lincoln’s pronouncement and realizes his best chance at freedom involves reaching the Union Army in Baton Rouge. Because he spends much of the movie breathlessly on the run, Smith actually goes long stretches without speaking, as he flees from a ruthless slave hunter (Ben Foster) and his men, pursuing on horseback and with dogs keen to his scent.
The only respite from that involves Peter’s wife, Dodienne (“The Good Fight’s” Charmaine Bingwa), from whom he has been separated, as she tries to keep the family together and he dreams of returning to her.
Effectively adopting a Haitian accent, Smith captures the physicality of the role, and Peter’s defiance toward his captors without uttering a word. The character derives strength from his devout faith, prompting a fellow prisoner to pointedly ask if he truly believes God is with them, “Where is He?”
Other characters, however, are thinly drawn, perhaps an inevitability given the hunter-and-hunted scenario, but nevertheless an impediment to becoming wholly drawn into the story. Fuqua fares best with his swooping camera illustrating the scope and horrors of the war, in sequences perhaps most reminiscent of “1917” among recent films in terms of their visceral power.
While the haunting aspect of the photograph grounds “Emancipation” in reality, there’s a pronounced Hollywood-ized feel to the finished product, one that doesn’t compare favorably with other projects that have covered similar territory, among recent examples the biographical “Harriet” and Amazon’s fictionalized miniseries “The Underground Railroad.”
Having produced the film, Apple had to release it at some point, and in what appears to be a wide-open Oscar race, now is likely as good a time as any. But the inevitable debate over whether Smith’s indiscretion at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, and the subsequent ban imposed on his attendance, might have cost him the chance to give his “King Richard” statuette a golden bookend would have been more fully tested by a movie that’s better than this one.
“Emancipation” premieres December 2 in US theaters and December 9 on Apple TV+. It’s rated R. (Disclosure: The writer’s spouse works for a unit of Apple.)