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In ‘Emancipation,’ Will Smith plays an enslaved man who escapes to freedom

But the film itself, directed by Antoine Fuqua, can’t shake off its ‘slave movie’ conventions

Will Smith in a scene from "Emancipation."Quantrell Colbert/Apple TV+ via AP

Will Smith’s “comeback” feature, “Emancipation,” should have been freed from its prestige-picture trappings. It’s a confused film, as uncertain of its intentions as viewers will be. Director Antoine Fuqua has taken the story of “Whipped Peter,” the enslaved man whose viciously scarred back galvanized the abolitionist movement, and turned it (with some creative license) into an unsuccessful mashup of Oscar bait and Blaxploitation.

“Emancipation” opens in Boston-area theaters and will be on Apple TV+ Dec. 9.

That it works better as Blaxploitation is hardly a surprise; Fuqua is no stranger to that era’s penchant for showing Black people as action heroes. The ultra-violent “Equalizer” movies he made with Denzel Washington are just retreads of Pam Grier’s classic revenge flicks like 1973′s “Coffy” and knock-offs of Jim Brown’s greatest hits. Fuqua even put Fred Williamson’s western-movie mustache on Washington in his 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven.”

Like that film, “Emancipation,” which takes place in Louisiana during the Civil War, culminates in an endless battle set, after Peter successfully escapes and joins the Union Army. Action is really the only gear Fuqua knows. Even a movie like 2001′s “Training Day,” which earned Washington his second Oscar for playing a corrupt cop, worked better in its violent scenes than when it was quietly interrogating the rationale of its bad-cop character. Smith was also nominated, alongside Washington, for best actor in Michael Mann’s “Ali”; he should have won.


Perhaps that win would have spared us from “Emancipation,” which plays like the contingency plan for Smith’s Oscar hopes had he not won for “King Richard.” (We can’t factor in this year’s slapping incident and its repercussions — an unexpected detour.) I base my theory solely on Peter being the kind of role that earns Black actors award consideration.


For starters, Smith is in a movie about slavery which, like films where attractive actors tone down their looks with prosthetics, always attract award attention. Peter even has rather useless religious visions like Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet Tubman, the role that garnered her a best actress nod for 2019′s “Harriet.” I’ve always wondered, why is it that movie characters who have God on speed dial never ask Him the right questions?

Really, any oppression of Black people will do when Oscar nominations are concerned: It could be a maid working during segregation, or a man driving around mean old Miss Daisy. All you have to do is suffer at the hands of your oppressor, do it somewhat nobly, and you’re a shoo-in.

Smith played a variation on this theme of noble struggle (and got an Oscar nomination — see?!) as unhoused San Francisco salesman Chris Gardner in 2006′s “The Pursuit of Happyness.” As in “Emancipation,” the audience gets to watch him suffer for two-plus hours before the film provides him (and us) a very brief and happy respite before the end credits. At least that film gave Smith a definitive character to play, and offered him a rational amount of control over his fate.

From left, Imani Pullum, Will Smith, Jeremiah Friedlander, Landon Chase Dubois, Charmaine Bingwa, and Jordyn McIntosh in a scene from "Emancipation."Quantrell Colbert/Apple TV+ via AP

We’re not sure what to make of Peter. He’s an empty vessel that screenwriter William Collage uses for whatever purpose the scene entails. “Emancipation” figures it’s enough that Peter is driven by freedom and an unwavering fealty to a God that, the movie argues, tells slaves to obey their masters. Since Peter is based on a real person, it would have behooved Collage to make him a fully defined character.


Instead, we get an impressively unkempt and imposing Smith staring down Ben Foster’s one-note overseer like Ken Norton challenging John Colicos in 1976′s “Drum.” When the evil enslavers snatch Peter from the home he shares with his wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), he literally pulls the door frame off the house as he’s dragged. This is not a weak man. He’s a bad mother-shut-your mouth like “Shaft.” He even gets his “Revenant” moment when he fights off an alligator.

Ben Foster in a scene from "Emancipation."Quantrell Colbert/Apple TV+ via AP

When the movie depicts violent retribution at the same level that powered many a Blaxploitation film, it almost makes up for all the horrific scenes of suffering we’re forced to sit through. Those scenes include graphic decapitations, people ripped to shreds by dogs, and Dodienne gruesomely maiming herself to fend off being sold without her children. The N-word is also used numerous times, befitting the timeframe.

The cinematography by Robert Richardson is either bleached of color to the point of distraction or erratically spotted with color. Perhaps he was emulating the 1863 photograph of “Whipped Peter” in order to give “Emancipation” an aura of prestige. Instead, the film looks like an unfinished paint-by-numbers picture.

My comparing “Emancipation” with Blaxploitation may outrage some readers. Too bad. You know what’s truly outrageous? That Hollywood keeps churning out movies that focus on Black trauma. We’ve had several the past few years, including “Antebellum” and “Master.” Even when the result is as excellent as Barry Jenkins’s series “The Underground Railroad,” many Black viewers are tired and long for more examples of Black joy onscreen.


When Smith was on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” he recalled a conversation with his daughter, who asked why he was making another slavery movie. “I wouldn’t make a slave movie,” he told her. “This is a freedom movie.”

Had “Emancipation” shaken off its Oscar-baiting “slave movie” shackles and instead gone full-tilt into a vengeance-laden “freedom movie,” it might have worked.



Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by William Collage. Starring Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, and Gilbert Owuor. At Showcase Cinema de Lux Legacy Place, Showcase Cinemas Randolph 16, and suburban theaters. On Apple TV+ Dec. 9. 132 minutes. R (graphic violence, use of the N-word, and unflinching brutality)

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at odie.henderson@globe.com.