Where I Watched It: Apple Plus
English Audio Description Provided By: Pixel Logic
Narrated By: Tanzi Alexander
My review of Emancipation has no bearing in what occurred at last year’s Oscars. I am completely able to compartmentalize and not let things that do not have anything to do with this film, and the hundreds of people who worked on it, affect my enjoyment or lack thereof. Will Smith does not set the release dates for his films, nor does he choose whether or not to launch Oscar campaigns. If you find Will Smith to be too problematic to watch this film, then there is nothing I can tell you in this review that would change that.
Now that we have that out of the way, Emancipation feels like it’s coming at the tail end of a sub-genre of films that center around black suffering which a lot of black Hollywood are trying to shift away from, and instead take time to focus on uplifting stories, instead of just using black tragedy as cinematic material. A lot of notes around how Till was approached have to do with not focusing on the incident itself in detail, and approaching the film from another angle, which has benefitted Danielle Detweiler with her getting noticed by awards organizations.
With emancipation, I do feel like I’ve seen versions of this film before, and already done better. I am also aware that this story has a historic foundation, much like 12 Years A Slave and Birth Of A Nation did. Comparing these films, with these powerful performances from their casts, about difficult subject matter is inevitable to some extent.
Director Antoine Fuqua might have Training Day under his belt, but he is far from a reliable director every time at bat. Typically, he’s used to directing action films, without the burden of a potential Oscar campaign. And to make matters worse, the screenwriter on this film hasn’t written a good film since 2006’s Accepted. That’s right. The same guy who wrote this was the guy that came up with the SHIT Sandwiches.And, you can tell he’s out of his element here. The script is frenetic, relying far too heavily on Smith’s Peter simply running from things. He’s constantly trying to escape, hide, or having a Revenant style moment with an alligator. But, what the script didn’t do is invest in anyone else in the ensemble.
So Fuqua covers for the script by directing the hell out of the action sequences. Especially the aforementioned alligator sequence, and really the final act of the film where Will Smith gets to fight for his freedom in the most literal way possible. It’s what turns Emancipation away from being simply a movie about the Deep South, the Vivian war, racism, or slavery, and into a survival film, because that’s what Fuqua is comfortable with directing.
Meanwhile, Smith has showed up believing he’s here for an emotionally resonant film. he is constantly having these intense quiet moments where he’s having to make quick life and death decisions, stare down his bounty hunters, and all of it based on a character arc that he will one day be reunited with his family. That is all good, except that the script could care less about his family, as it forgot to establish them and their relationship with their father/husband before he’s on this solo journey to freedom.
So, even when Fuqua wants to cut back to these characters, they are so underwritten that they could ahve been played by day players. Previous films, like the aforementioned 12 Years A Slave, understood the importance of resting the weight of the time period on your ensemble instead of just your leading man. They were able to show struggle through Ejiofor’s simple viewing of the mistreatment of those around him, and those he came to care for. in Birth of A Nation, Nate Parker directed himself into the role of Nat Turner, where he also had to watch terrible things happen to ones he loved. Both films built these connections with an understanding of their importance, and how it helps the film and the protagonist.
Smith is pretty much yelling about a family we don’t care about. They’ve barely been seen, and there’s nothing special about their performances. What makes this film work is that in spite of this script, Fuqua can direct the hell out of a survival film, and Smith is giving what might be his best performance ever. Certainly, he’s better here than he was last year in King Richard.
Aside from all of that, the one little cherry on top is that someone was smart enough to cast Ben Foster. Foster, who has long been overdue for an Oscar nomination, takes a rather calm internalized approach to a role that Michael Fassbender used to chew the scene. Foster is at his creepiest when he starts to tell a story that seems innocent enough, but ends horribly awry, and he tells the whole story with such disconnect that you don’t question that his soul was lost years ago. There is no redemption for this man, but he also doesn’t feel the need to scream through every single scene. I think sometimes people forget just how good Ben Foster is, and he always ends up just complimenting an actor who gets the recognition, whether it be Woody Harrelson in The Messenger, or the cast of Hell Or high Water, Foster is the one who misses out on the nomination. He will again here, but he is no less fantastic in this role.
This is a case of several parts not working, especially as a whole, but some of those parts are working overtime to compensate for those parts that have long since died. Will Smith, seriously, is at his best. From Fresh Prince to this, he’s attacking this role with such ferocity that I fully believe he is trying to survive this film. Fuqua may not know how to make up for the writing, but he can direct a tense action sequence, or lead the charge in a grand final push. And Foster, who always supports to the best of his ability, plays a creepy motherfucker you will love to hate.
All of this is accompanied by Tanzi Alexander’s narration, which for this film has a lot of heavy lifting to do. Not only are their action sequences, and violent acts, but a lot of the film is quiet. A lot of Will Smith’s performance is in his silent intensity. He spends time hiding, trying to be quiet, and the audio description does a great job of balancing these moments, without revealing the outcome. in many ways, Alexander is the perfect narrator for this film. She’s always been a strong choice, but as Emancipation fails to really cocine itself consistently to one genre, having a narrator who is just as good at handling the quiet moments as the loud moments was a good call.
I can’t say Emancipation is a good film, but I frequently enjoy films a bit more when an actor or a few actors are at the top of their game. And that is the case here. Will Smith put this movie on his back, with a little help from Ben Foster, and carried this thing the whole damn way. Watch it to watch him.
Final Grade: B-