In what, in past years would have no doubt been an Oscar Nomination, Will Smith’s newest film Emancipation is now streaming on Apple TV+. Shot before the drama and scandal of later year’s Oscars, no doubt Smith would have received at least a nod for his performance in the role of Peter, a slave who escapes and later helps emancipate his own family from the plantation he was once enslaved.
Emancipation follows Peter’s story as he goes from slavery to a free man, who will at any cost free his family as well. It shows the risks he takes and just what it took for him to escape from their plantation in Louisana to Baton Rouge to meet up with the army forces. During Peter’s escape, he finds himself fighting alligators and hiding from slave hunters. Literally fighting for his life, and that of others along the way. It shows the horrors of slavery, over and over again – and the physical and mental costs the enslaved dealt with. All important things that should be brought to light and the stories told.
Unfortunately, Emancipation seems to have got lost along the way. Peter’s story is one that should be told, and in a two-hour movie – it has a lot more to it than is portrayed. Instead, the movie focuses over half its the runtime in the swamps, showing Smith trudging through the water and climbing trees. This portion of his story could have been shaved down, trimmed, and the focus put on other parts of the story. Maybe more of Peter’s life after emancipating his family, or even more of the military service portion. It seems like the movie bloated the swamp portion because they didn’t have enough of the story to focus on other areas.
Coupled with the movie being presented in a desaturating that seems to be selective on different scenes – the movie just feels weird watching it. The decision to use a desaturated tone is interesting and possible to make the movie feel older or of a certain time period. But the amount of desaturation seems to come and go and not consistently enough to make a statement.
While Emancipation brings an interesting topic to the screen, it’s under the guise that it’s a story of an unknown former slave. Where the reality is, Peter’s story is probably one of the more well-known slave stories in popular media due to the popularity of the use of his image. That being said – his story, may not be as well known as others throughout history. Does this mean that a movie about Peter’s life shouldn’t be made? No, not at all. It does, however, mean that the justification being used to make the movie is flawed, and his story should be told in a much better format. Emancipation focuses so much on his time in the swamps, it seems to put less focus on other pivotal parts of his story – and even seems to be a miss when telling the story in general.
Coupled with the weird editing, it makes you question who Emancipation was actually created for. Was the movie just shot to be an easy selection for an Oscar nod? Peter’s story is one that should be told, but the people that need to see it most likely won’t be watching the movie – even if they area already subscribed to Apple TV+. And people who know his story will most likely turn off the movie quickly with its weird pacing and graphic nature. It seems to be floating in this abyss without a real audience in mind.
Would Emancipation have been an Oscar win for Smith? That’s debatable on its own. His portrayal of Peter feels like he fell back on his older overacting days, without the comedic element. It feels almost forced, and Smith almost seemed lost in the role, as much as the story was in the swampland.
Emancipation is now streaming on Apple TV+ with a subscription. I’m not sure if it’s saying a lot that Apple is offering a free month of service to help promote the movie or not – or they already know it’s going to be a hard sell for viewers with the topic and lead actor choice.
Inspired by the gripping true story of a man who would do anything for his family – and for freedom. When Peter, an enslaved man, risks his life to escape and return to his family, he embarks on a perilous journey of love and endurance.