Movie review: 'Emancipation' is impressive but still follows Will Smith formula

Will Smith stars in "Emancipation." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
1 of 5 | Will Smith stars in "Emancipation." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 5 (UPI) -- Emancipation, in theaters now and on Apple TV+ Friday, is still very much a Will Smith action movie. That may undermine its aspirations as important historical drama but still makes an impressive Hollywood epic.

In 1863 Louisiana following the Emancipation Proclamation, Peter (Smith) is pulled from a plantation to work for the Confederate army. After enduring hard labor and brutal abuse, Peter and two other slaves (Gilbert Owuor, Michael Luwoye) make their escape.


The first indication that Emancipation is still a Will Smith blockbuster is that Peter explicitly spares the lives of his captors when he escapes. That feels like a movie star afraid his fans would consider him unlikeable if he kills someone in self-defense, even a racist slave driver.

Peter kills later in the movie, but still only when he's forced to.


Confederate trackers led by Jim Fassel (Ben Foster) hunt Peter through the swamp and the chase is suspenseful. Even though the story on which Emancipation is based is that of a slave who did escape, the danger is palpable from both hostile people and the dangerous environment.

The horsemen tracking Peter are relentless and any white citizen he passes could sound an alarm. Peter faces natural dangers in the swamp too and must attend to his medical needs and find food while on the run.

The production of Emancipation put effort into conveying the scale of Civil War era Louisiana. Sweeping shots of the work site are full of extras hammering at the railroad, digging and carrying wood.

Later, Peter runs through empty battlefields littered with bodies and debris, and the film climaxes in a battle between Union and Confederate armies. Peter's wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) works a full cotton gin on the plantation.

In an era of digital movies, of which Smith has made many, Smith and director Antoine Fuqua used their clout to stage epic scenes in the old school Hollywood tradition. The purpose is to be authentic rather than entertaining, but it's still impressive.


Less impressive was the decision to present Emancipation in a pseudo black and white aesthetic. Faint hints of color emerge in the anguished faces of slaves, animal fur, some grass and bloody effects of violence but feel gimmicky rather than impactful.

Emancipation does depict the graphic brutality of slavery and war. It doesn't pull punches in that regard.

In fashioning Peter's story into a 133 minute movie, Emancipation makes familiar concessions to cinematic formula. Other escapees fare worse than Peter simply because they're not played by the movie star, so they are sacrificed to establish the stakes for Peter.

That may be unavoidable in making Peter the main character, but another cliche is blatant. Emancipation has the all too familiar scene where someone has a gun on Peter and a gunshot rings out, but Peter discovers someone off camera saved him.

That cliche should be retired in modern-day movies, let alone ones based on true stories.

Historians would be better equipped to evaluate how accurate Emancipation actually is. As a film, it employs impressive resources to depict a difficult subject in a familiar format.


Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

Will Smith, Ben Foster attend 'Emancipation' premiere in LA

Star Will Smith attends the premiere of Apple Original Film's historical drama "Emancipation" at the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles on November 30, 2022. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

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