Yes, the slap might have permanently damaged Will Smith’s reputation in Hollywood, but he’s still got a lot of talent. Emancipation is being sold as his “return,” letting his work speak for him. Smith is very good here in service of a part that Denzel Washington and Antoine Fuqua would probably have done together had Washington not aged out of the role. Or maybe Denzel turned it down because he read the script.
Emancipation takes place right in the middle of the Civil War, right after Abraham Lincoln delivered the Proclamation freeing all the slaves. That proclamation means nothing to Peter (Will Smith), a Haitian slave in Louisiana. Peter is ripped from his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and his family and transferred to a new plantation, close to where the Union soldiers are fighting the Confederates. Seeking help of the army to help find/reunite with his family, Peter decides to run away from the plantation, drawing the attention of the ruthless Fassel (Ben Foster) an expert in capturing and punishing runaway slaves.
Antoine Fuqua sets up the main storyline as a cat and mouse game between Fassel and Peter. When Emancipation focuses on the worst game of hide and seek ever, the movie is potent and exciting. That’s playing to the actors’ strengths: Will Smith has been trained to act alone in I Am Legend, and Ben Foster is hardened by tough Westerns. As Peter progresses closer to the Union troops, director Fuqua throws just about every terrifying situation you could encounter in his way. Environmentally, there’s lots of deadly swamp animals. Injuries build and have to be dealt with. And overall Fassel and his expert hunting dogs are not the type of people who will stop before they get their man. Each new escape gives Fuqua a chance to show Peter’s ingenuity and courage, plus show the consequences of what awaits him if Fassel ever catches him. At its best this is when Emancipation is tense, shocking, and sometimes really exciting.
I wish Emancipation ONLY was this story. Instead, there’s a need to add filler that causes the story to lose its way. Giving Peter a family immediately establishes that he’s a good guy, but the repeated call backs to them lack any narrative momentum, and will have Apple TV subscribers checking texts or going to the bathroom. But the biggest sin is the movie doesn’t know when to end. The resolution of the main story has a natural ending, but Fuqua feels the need to make that ending bigger and more profound, tying in to real history. What we get looks cool, but it doesn’t mean anything because the main story elements have been stripped away. The final 30 minutes give us an ending to a movie no one was watching, which might leave people confused or more likely, more bored than they expected.
If anything, at least Emancipation proves Will Smith hasn’t lost his acting chops. It does bum me out that the Antoine Fuqua/Will Smith movie pairing wasn’t more incredible. No matter, Antoine reunited with his true love, Denzel, in the Equalizer 3 next year. By then hopefully everything will be right as rain.