Will Smith’s ‘Emancipation’ is a Solid Survival Thriller (Review)

by | Dec 9, 2022

The film is now streaming on Apple TV+. 

As Apple continues to show how it’s done with original films among the streamers, now comes their biggest film yet: Emancipation. You know the buzz around the film, so there’s no need to rehash that. But what matters is the quality of the film itself. And while Emancipation may not be the awards contender the streamer hoped it would be, it’s still a solid survival thriller, featuring one of the best performances from its A-list star in the past decade. 

The story of Emancipation is as straightforward as its title: After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, many slaves still found themselves in bondage. Focusing in on Louisiana, we find Peter (Will Smith) enslaved and taken prisoner. But after escaping a camp, he must survive the swampland in an effort to remain free and get back to his family while being pursued by a ruthless slave trader (Ben Foster). 

The brutality of slavery is still difficult to fathom to this day, and director Antoine Fuqua, a filmmaker who has made his fair share of violent films, does not shy away from harsh reality here. While the brutality is shown in gray-color scale, you can still feel its impact through the imagery of blood dripping on vegetation in the swampland or the impeccable sound design of a character’s violent action. The decision to show the film in this color grade, much like how gray the entire Civil War was, despite what we might know from history books, works to much better effect here than another film coming out in a couple of weeks that is sure to be at the center of awards discussion. 

While Emancipation wastes no time getting into its story and showing the grim realities of slavery and its lasting impact on our nation, the film is hampered by some miscues. The biggest being that it adds little context to its subject matter. While the origin behind the infamous photo at the center of this film would make for a remarkable story, that’s not the case here, as it follows a pretty basic A-to-B pattern in its thrills and action sequences. Other miscues involve the film’s action, including trying to replicate the bear sequence from The Revenant with a CGI alligator fighting Smith’s character in the swamp. Another takes place in the final act, where a battlefield sequence feels completely out of place compared to the rest of the film. 

All that being said, Smith’s presence keeps things from growing stale, and in turn he turns in one of his best performances in years. Smith particularly shines in the film’s quieter moments, which are arguably as good as any of the scenes he had in last year’s King Richard, which we know nabbed him his first-ever Oscar. In a smaller role, Foster, known for antagonist roles, plays a cunningly good slave trader here. 

Emancipation might not be the buzzworthy film that lives up to its expectations or the hefty price tag attached to it. But there’s no denying that Will Smith elevates this film, making it a must-add to your watchlist and among one of the few highlights of what is shaping up to be a weekend light on new offerings.