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  • Writer's pictureGareth Bradwick

Emancipation ★★★

Antoine Fuqua

Starring Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Steven Ogg, Gilbert Owuor

Will Smith returns for another go at awards season playing Peter, a man who risks his life by escaping slavery so that he can return to his family from which he was kidnapped. The film tells the story of that journey and the gruesome reality of slavery even as Black men and women throughout the United States were declared free by President Lincoln.

The movie is more of a thriller/action piece than a drama, with Smith on a journey that is sometimes action packed, sometimes dramatic. All the while, it has aims of presenting deeper message and nuanced storytelling that it doesn’t quite get the room to do. There is more of a focus on fighting alligators than exploring the why’s and how’s of the situation Peter has found himself in. The scenes are presented in a way that push the journey forward at pace; with sweeping drone shots and dramatic score. Any slower moments are soon fizzled out and by the final act, the plot feels rushed to the point that Peter’s journey ends without the impact it wanted to have.

There are elements to admire in this picture. Smith plays Peter with strength, stoicism and utter commitment. In the more passionate moments you can glimpse Will Smith from Ali or Bad Boys, but on the whole he has transformed into this character and it’s fascinating to watch. The other characters passed through Peter’s story without being given very much attention. This in part is due to the pace, but there were some moments and characters that would have added some additional nuance the movie craved.

Peter’s is a story that needs to be told. We have all seen the “Whipped Peter” image that’s recreated in this film. Although the movie itself is well intentioned and superbly performed, it doesn’t quite achieve what it set out to do. Will Smith however is incredibly powerful and proves yet again his Hollywood legend status.

Emancipation available now on Apple TV+

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