The boffins of Apple+ streaming reportedly paid out $130 million for the rights to violent period action drama Emancipation some time before the project was hobbled by the caveman act of star Will Smith; it’s somewhat surprising that Antoine Fuqua’s film is getting an awards season release at all. Like becoming president, winning an Oscar was once supposedly an enviable home run that cements your place in history rather than unravels it; in Smith’s case, the King Richard slap unspooled Smith’s public persona to a point where even such a virtue-signalling, hypocritical appropriation of history as Emancipation won’t land with many.
The inspiration here is the famous photograph taken of the scarred back of a slave, known as Gordon and renamed Peter here; Smith’s opening scene sees him humbly washing a woman’s feet, so you can insert your own Jesus metaphor here. But not just any Jesus, but the killing, righteous dead-eyed vengeful Jesus who fights-like-hell and kills-for-God that the worst kind of movies contrive as historical exploitation every so often. Peter is cruelly separated from his family, Apocalypto-style, but heroically fights his way back through a swamp to his loved ones, taking on various vermin including snakes, crocodiles and racist Ben Foster. Eventually Gordon/Peter single-handedly wins the Civil War in a cartoonish fashion and returns home to his delighted family. The End.
Not surprisingly given the misogynist nature of Smith’s real-life behaviour, in his view protecting his family but more obviously acting like an entitled, violent child with zero moral compass, the female parts in Emancipation are minimally fleshed out so as not to distract from Smith’s OTT central turn. The best reason for watching is the artful photography of Robert Richardson, but with a largely colourless palette that gives the film a drained, grim AF look, even Richardson’s considerable talent ends up sucked into the back hole of self-regarding ego, and reminding us that Django Unchained told this story in a far more entertaining and creative way.
Smith, of course, turned down Django in favour of this humourless, spiritless lesson in made-up history; Peter as a character is nothing but a collection of virtues to be painfully signalled. For Smith to return from his own self-created public humiliation to teach us all about the deep personal pain of slaves is a cognitive dissonance on a grand scale; for once, it’s pretty much impossible to put aside the ‘artist’ and examine the art, because the art seems to have been designed specifically to compel us to ignore the artist’s excess. The US abolition of slavery is vitally important as history, and depicting it shouldn’t be used as a shallow subterfuge to rehabilitate Smith’s unapologetically mob-boss behaviour, which has already caused more harm than his movies will ever inspire good.