A film with a lot of promise that unfortunately trades authenticity for crafted awards bait, Emancipation brings little new to the subject at its core with unremarkable performances and a disregard for facts.
The film is loosely based on the true story of Gordon (named Peter in the film and portrayed by Will Smith), a slave who escaped captivity and fled through the swamp to reach freedom. The problem with Emancipation stems from its claim to be baed on this story, one that has few details in reality and wouldn’t be able to fill a half-hour special, let alone a two hour plus film. In truth, nothing is known about Gordon’s experiences in those ten days in the swamp, let alone what those who may or may not have been attempting to track him down did or said (Ben Foster plays one of these men solidly). What results is a sort of half-hearted attempt at paying tribute to the man, but also concocting a vanity vehicle for Smith. Emancipation is not a thoughtful exploration of slavery and the true journey of one brave man. It is instead an unnecessary survivalist action flick. It works as the latter, but that’s not what we were sold.
Smith is just fine in his portrayal, again taking a lot of liberties and given more emotional instigators to progress the story. For instance, little is known about Gordon’s wife, yet we get a fleshed-out subplot in Emancipation that also focuses in on Peter’s kids. In reality, Gordon didn’t have any children. Even with the craftsmanship of more personally dramatic plot, Smith doesn’t turn in that Oscar-worthy performance he likely was hoping for.
Visually the film is really sharp, a subdued color palette setting the tone as the viewer is transported to the depicted times and the horrors that they hold. Director Antoine Fuqua has a keen sense on how to present an atmospheric film and how to keep it moving; though largely inaccurate, the film is never once boring.
Look, Emancipation is a film that if not for its Hollywood blockbuster story inflation would have been much more enjoyable and memorable. This isn’t like Titanic where characters were created from scratch and placed into a historical event. Emancipation literally takes the little that is known about a real individual and fabricates the man’s history, peppered with nods to current societal tensions, to suit their cinematic endeavor. That isn’t the film I wanted to see.
Emancipation is now playing in select theaters and streaming on Apple TV+.