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Derrick Dunn

Will Smith and director Antione Fuqua avoid slave movie tropes in Emancipation

Following his much-deserved Oscar win for last year’s King Richard, Will Smith returns in Emancipation from Apple TV+. Action and thriller genre specialist Antoine Fuqua directs the film from a script by William N. Collage. 

Emancipation tells the triumphant story of Peter (Will Smith), a man who escapes slavery on a journey through the unforgiving swamps of Louisiana on his quest for freedom. Relying on his wits, unwavering faith, and deep love for his family, Peter must evade a trio of cold-blooded hunters led by Fassell (Ben Foster).

The film’s script takes inspiration from a series of 1863 photos of “Whipped Peter” that first appeared in Harper’s Weekly. The pictures were taken during a medical examination of a Union Army soldier. This image, dubbed “The Scourged Back,” shows a bareback mutilated by a whipping administered by Peter’s enslavers, contributing to the growing opposition to slavery among the general public.

Before getting into my review, I want to point out that Emancipation isn’t another slave movie. Yes, there are some cruel moments in the films, but the film doesn’t push the envelope that far. During my press screening, I mentioned to a few other film critics that I don’t think neither Fuqua nor Smith would’ve signed on to the film if there wasn’t some merit in the movie.

After the obligatory credits that carry true stories, we are quickly thrust into the 1800s through the lush cinematography of three-time Academy Award winner Robert Richardson. Fuqua introduces us to Peter while giving his family kind words before he leaves them since he was sold to a work camp.

We immediately see that Peter is defiant and isn’t here for any foolishness. After some brief time at the work camp, Peter casually hears that Lincoln has freed the slaves and plots his escape with three comrades. 

In hindsight, William N. Collage’s script for the film incorporates three of the seven basic plots with history. After thirty-two years in the acting game, Will Smith has crafted a niche bravado in his film work. I’ve been overly critical of some of Smith’s choices, particularly his turning down the classic Django Unchained for the abysmal After Earth. However, in a post-film discussion, a mentor pointed out that Django would’ve just been different were Smith in the role since his acting style differs from Jamie Foxx’s.

Outside of Ben Foster, who makes a menacing hunter and a too-late third-act appearance from Mustafa Shakir, Emancipation belongs to Smith. Per the norm, Smith alludes swagger even in the moments in the Emancipation when Peter is down and out. I don’t think Smith is chasing another Oscar, as he shot this film before the slapping incident. 

Instead, Smith wanted to make another inspirational film that mixes history with a cat & mouse suspense film. Generally, Smith and Fuqua succeeded as I found myself invested in Peter’s journey. However, the primary issue with the film I had was the script.

Initially, Emancipation was a spec script, and while I respect Collage for bringing the story to the masses, the film needed a rewrite by a more prolific writer. The film’s writer’s previous work includes Tower Heist, Allegiant, and the video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed. All of those films had pacing issues. The sentiment carries over here, thus causing a rift with Fuqua’s directing style.

Despite this issue, due to the direction of Fuqua and the satisfactory performance from Smith, I recommend Emancipation. Taking more from the style of The Fugitive than 12 Years A Slave, Emancipation is worth the watch.


Final Grade: B

Emancipation opens in theaters on December 2, 2022, followed by a December 9 release on Apple TV+.

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