Emancipation is a 2022 American dramatic historical action thriller film directed by Antoine Fuqua and co-produced by and starring Will Smith as an enslaved man in Louisiana in the 1860s who escapes his plantation. The film, written by William N. Collage, is loosely based on the real-life story of Peter and Gordon, two formerly enslaved Black men, and the photographs of Peter’s bare back, heavily scourged from an overseer’s whippings, that were published worldwide in 1863, giving the abolitionist movement proof of the cruelty of enslavement. The film also stars Ben Foster and Charmaine Bingwa.
I really like the way the visual effects overlay throughout this movie. There’s this awesome technique that you’ll notice almost immediately when watching. Antoine Fuqueaand crew create this visual filter where the movie first looks black and white. After a few moments, you notice that the filmmakers creatively introduce flourishes of color. Emancipation uses these flourishes of color for a dramatic effect that actually soothes you into watching. It was a pleasant but unexpected surprise that really feels visually soothing after a few moments. It’s also unsettling and triggering when you see the red of the blood of the brutality on screen. I really am impressed with this technique and it really enhances the film.
Aside from the visuals, Emancipation has really good pacing. The movie doesn’t get stuck in any particular moment or scene and carries us through a lot of events in a little time. There’s a lot of that happens in Emancipation.We meet Peter, his wife played by Charmaine Bingwha, and Ben Fosters’ character Fassell all in the first 20 or so minutes. Things only pick up from here as Peter makes his escape and the chase is on! There’s a surprising amount of action in Emancipation including a scene Paul fights a crocodile! I didn’t know how much I needed to see add punching crocodiles to his Hollywood resume. It’s one of the most thrilling scenes in the movie that really gets showcased thanks to the camera work and visual effects.
Emancipation is a movie that makes me wildly uncomfortable. I feel weird watching it, and hearing about it.. hell, even writing about it makes me uncomfortable. I like the idea of Emancipation more than I do the final product and I don’t like that. Antoine Fuqua blends elements of a lot of different genres but doesn’t get good results. I don’t like how Emancipation uses more of the elements of a Hollywood ‘chase’ movie rather than a historical movie. Emancipation ends up feeling like a combination of multiple genres of film that shouldn’t go together but mechanically work. Ben Foster as Fassell is fantastic and is given a good amount to work with. he conveys a good villain to run away from. He’s almost like agent smith from The Matrix.
Will delivers a great performance once you get into his character. Ben Foster is amazingly stoic and he delivers great performances when he’s the focus of the scene. Charmaine Bingwa delivers one of the most memorable monologues when warning her children of danger in the entire movie> But there’s something about this ensemble that just doesn’t quite fit with each other. There’s a distinct lack of chemistry with the cast that comes off in the film. There are few scenes with any of th principles together but their performances come off stiff when on screen together. Unfortunately, some key scenes suffer when they needed the leads to deliver the emotional impact when on screen together.
I have a hard time getting attached to Will Smith’s Paul as a character. This could be because Emancipation doesn’t devote a lot of time to developing Paul as a character before thrusting him into troubling situations. In fact, I never saw this as ‘Will Smith as Paul’ but rather what if ‘Paul was Will Smith’. What I mean by that is that there are moments when I just expect to see Paul ‘Will Smith’ his way out of a situation like an action movie star. Paul is shown to be extremely capable in this movie. Paul is one of the smartest, most courageous, and most skilled people in the movie. Paul’s ability to navigate the swamp, perform first aid, handle a rifle without any on-screen training, and survive a war is remarkable. This is absolutely an action movie set in a time of slavery and it’s a wholly unique approach to the genre.
Emancipation doesn’t feel like it’s trying to tell any story of any particular importance. The film also feels oddly out of place for Will Smith and also ends up feeling forced. Paul’s story bookends with a famous photo but I feel unfamiliar with the person that ended up in that photo. There are technically great moments in Emancipation but it doesn’t come together as a great film.
- Acting - 7/107/10
- Cinematography/Visual Effects - 7/107/10
- Plot/Screenplay - 5/105/10
- Setting/Theme - 6/106/10
- Watchability - 6/106/10
- Rewatchability - 5/105/10