Starring: Will Smith, Ben Foster, and Charmaine Bingwa
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Emancipation has a bit of an identity crisis on its hands. What starts as an Oscar Bait slavery drama akin to 12 Years a Slave evolves into an action chase movie similar to Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto before eventually giving way to a Civil War movie in the vein of Glory. The mishmash of those tones, not to mention the inconsistent color palette, makes it hard for the viewer to truly settle in. That said, it’s never boring. Will Smith and Ben Foster do nice work, and it’s beautifully shot. The brutality might turn some people off, but there is enough here to make it worth your time.
Emancipation’s story should always be told. It’s a well-written, well-acted, well-scored and well-directed movie. Director Antoine Fuqua’s action doesn’t miss, and his use of tints and colors is especially poignant. That said, as an American Black man whose upbringing included Glory, Roots, and Amistad, there’s always the lingering question of whether I need to watch another slavery movie. I wanted to watch…that’s why you’re reading this review…but after finishing it, the answer is "no, I did not." By all means, watch the film. But if your station in life mirrors mine, then I’ll let you decide if your want outweighs your need.
Its heart is in the right place, but unfortunately, Emancipation doesn’t quite rise to the level of filmmaking it hopes to achieve. Director Antoine Fuqua’s runaway slave thriller does feature a solid (if tepid) Will Smith performance, but the film has little to say about the brutality of slavery or the difficulties involved in escaping it. The film also looks quite bad, with such a desaturated color grade that one would think it was black & white if not for a few warm hues in some margins (not to mention the far too many drone shots). All in all, it’s serviceable, but skippable.
I wish I knew what director Antoine Fuqua was trying to accomplish with Emancipation. One moment, the film is a sickening look at slavery; five minutes later, it's an action thriller. Those ideals never mesh together in a cohesive way, so it left me lost as to what the ultimate goal was. I’m not saying the story is never compelling, it just feels fumbled. Despite the film’s distracting color grading, it is admittedly well constructed, and Will Smith is an effective lead; however, I never felt gripped by the events of the story enough to care.