In an ideal world, we would have the chance to see Will Smith playing the role of a slave in Django Unchained ten years ago. Not that Jamie Foxx, the eventual replacement who plays the eponymous character did a bad job. In fact, he delivers one of his best performances right there but it would be an interesting what-if scenario if Smith didn’t turn Quentin Tarantino down in the first place.
Of course, it would take Smith a decade later to finally see him in a movie about slavery. The result is Emancipation, which marks Smith’s comeback role since the infamous slapping incident back in March. Inspired by the true story of “Whipped Peter” in 1863, Smith plays the titular Haitian slave who is sold to the Confederate Army and forced to work gruellingly as manual labour on the railroad. He promises his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and children that he will come back to them.
Upon learning the news about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, he plots an escape with some of his fellow slaves (among them includes Gordon played by Gilbert Owuor) in an effort to reach Lincoln’s army. It doesn’t take long before he finally has the opportunity to lead them through the dangerous swamps while running as fast as they can. Chasing them from behind on horseback is a group of slave hunters led by Fassel (Ben Foster), who wouldn’t stop tracking down the runaway slaves at all costs.
Given its true-story historical subject matter about slavery and the man himself, who became famous for the widely-circulated photograph of his hideously-scarred back, Emancipation has the look and feel of an Oscar-worthy prestige picture. But Antoine Fuqua is more interested in turning the harrowing slavery drama into a predominantly chase movie. The kind that focuses heavily on the visceral thrills of Peter’s ordeal trying to outrun and outsmart the relentless slave hunters through the swamps.
No doubt that if you view this solely as an action thriller, Fuqua certainly does a good job flexing his action-movie sensibility with some great drone-heavy camerawork. in Emancipation. The elaborate chase even has the gritty and muscular vibe of William Friedkin’s The Hunted (2003), the sadly underrated action thriller starring Tommy Lee Jones as a deep-woods tracker hunting down a rogue trained assassin (Benicio del Toro). The movie also benefits from Robert Richardson’s desaturated cinematography which gives it a distinctly near-monochrome and at times, a sepia-toned look with some hints of colours.
As for the cast, Will Smith sports a convincing Haitian accent while giving an engaging, yet physically-demanding performance as Peter. He doesn’t talk much for most parts of the movie, relying heavily on expressive stares to convey his varied emotions. His committed turn in Emancipation continues to showcase his dramatic acting prowess since winning his first (controversial) Oscar for Best Actor in King Richard. The only downside about his role is the lack of character development since we don’t really learn much about Peter other than depicting him as a God-fearing man who refuses to give up to reunite with his family someday. The supporting cast, notably Ben Foster and Charmaine Bingwa deliver respectively decent performances as the heartless Fassel and Peter’s wife, Dodienne.
Emancipation does feel overlong at 132 minutes for a chase movie that could have worked better with a leaner running time. This is especially true when the movie eventually overstays its welcome with a protracted war-heavy third act as we see Peter ends up joining the Union Army. The problem here is that Fuqua’s attempt to change genres from a minimalist-style chase movie to a full-blown historical war epic feels jarring and doesn’t gel with each other.
Emancipation is currently streaming on Apple TV+.