Vague Visages’ Emancipation review contains minor spoilers. Antoine Fuqua’s 2022 Apple TV+ movie stars Will Smith, Ben Foster and Charmaine Bingwa. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Emancipation, now streaming on Apple TV+, will play a crucial role in actor Will Smith’s cultural redemption journey. Antoine Fuqua’s 14th feature is powerful enough to please general streamers who typically avoid emotionally draining black and white films, even if some of the aesthetic choices and religion-themed monologues veer towards blatant populism. Emancipation packs more of a punch than other successful Apple dramas, such as CODA and Causeway, primarily because of a sharp script by William N. Collage and sensational lead performances by Smith and co-star Ben Foster.
Based on the life experiences of a Black Louisiana slave named Gordon — or “Whipped Peter,” a moniker given to him after appearing in a now-famous photograph — Emancipation tells a familiar story, albeit one that stands out through its specificities and handling of cultural divides. Smith’s protagonist, after learning that U.S. President Abraham Lincoln freed all slaves via Proclamation 95 (“The Emancipation Proclamation”), plans for a five-day journey to Baton Rouge with his wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), and their three children. Peter’s plans quickly change when Confederate soldiers hold him at gunpoint and take him to a slave camp. There, Smith’s character befriends a Black man named Gordon (Gilbert Owuor) while plotting against a Confederate leader, Jim Fassel (Foster).
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The combination of Fuqua, Smith and Foster is a helluva filmmaking unit. On paper, this particular trio could take on any genre. In Emancipation, Fuqua pairs outstanding aerial shots with shocking visuals. Incidentally, one can feel the scope of the narrative, along with the stakes for Smith’s protagonist. Visually, Fuqua continuously alters the color palette by contrasting bleak black-and-white images with the brown of Peter’s skin; a reminder of the character’s humanity. Will this particular technique resonate with general Apple TV+ streamers? I don’t know… probably. It may depend on whether or not audiences vibe with Smith’s monologues about religion and perseverance.
For example, just two minutes after a brutal face branding scene — in which a red flame crackles in the frame — Fuqua and his screenwriter incorporate a “Where is God?” conversation amongst Black slaves, which at once creates a powerful moment while raising questions about the overall effectiveness of the scene (at least when considering that most heavy dramas about people surviving horrible conditions typically include a “Where is God?” scene). So, when a tear rolls down Smith’s face in this first act moment, it seems slightly contrived. Furthermore, it distracts from the lead’s acting, which audiences will indeed be paying close attention to after the Oscar debacle of March 2022.
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For this (white) critic, I can get over some of Emancipation’s overt tearjerker moments because I know that they’ll land differently for other viewers. Also, Fuqua and his screenwriter thematically link powerful first act dialogue with third act payoffs. And so the “Where is God?” scene links to a more powerful line; one solitary tear on Peter’s face sets up a heavier tear. And these are indeed traditional Oscar moments that ensure Smith will be in the running for Best Actor. Importantly, though, Emancipation’s best lines don’t necessarily correlate with elite acting — they are there for the Apple audience to grasp onto for emotional purposes. Smith’s best acting moments, in my opinion, happen when he physically holds in all of Peter’s pain and allows it to seep out throughout the 132-minute runtime. The tear is one example, yes, but there’s also plenty of justified rage and anger. Smith’s speaking cadence is also crucial for the performance, most notably the way he articulates certain points about religion and faith. Don’t be surprised if many Smith skeptics change their tune on the actor after watching Emancipation.
As a white viewer, I appreciate that Emancipation’s primary white villain is a complex man with nuanced thoughts about life in general. Foster, whose character Jim is inarguably a despicable individual, delivers a fantastic monologue in which he discusses being partially raised by a Black woman he adored. Or maybe he simply became used to her help? Maybe both, perhaps. The filmmakers don’t justify Jim’s violent behavior towards Peter, but they do explain why he travels with a Black man (Aaron Moten as Knowls). Emancipation’s second half repeatedly challenges viewers to consider various perspectives — both black and white — an approach that betrays the didacticism of so many films about historical events.
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Emancipation isn’t a film about religion, but a rather a film that incorporates religious concepts while guiding the audience towards a colorless light; an energy that allows one to persevere when everything feels overwhelming. And I think that might be the greatest strength of Fuqua’s Apple endeavor — his ability to remove any doubt about the protagonist’s spiritual convictions. When thinking about Emancipation, I’m reminded of Cian Tsang’s January 2020 Vague Visages essay about Terrence Malick’s handling of religious themes in A Hidden Life (2019), a story about a Catholic Austrian farmer who refused to help the Nazis during World War II:
“The best religious filmmakers don’t hold the hand of the non-religious viewer, nor do they proselytize — they simply trust that their vision will resonate.”
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.
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