Will Smith’s ‘Emancipation’: What the Critics Are Saying

Will Smith’s ‘Emancipation’: What the Critics Are Saying

The review embargo for Antoine Fuqua‘s much-talked about escaped slave drama Emancipation lifted Wednesday evening and early critics reaction to the Apple Original Films feature is decidedly mixed.

Critics praised Emancipation‘s cast, with Will Smith, the film’s controversy-stricken star, receiving plaudits along with co-stars Ben Foster and Charmaine Bingwa. The film’s survival thriller format was also praised, as well as the appreciation for the film’s approach to the subject. Some critics were critical of the film’s brutality and look. They also raised questions about Robert Richardson’s stylized cinematography and the sparse script.

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Lovia Gyarkye writes that Emancipation treats Peter’s escape and journey well, but the film is “hampered by a spare and spiritless screenplay.” Gyarkye feels that the current reality of a growing refusal to confront the horrors of slavery or attempts to rewrite history in some U.S. states “saddles films like Antoine Fuqua’s tottering drama…with a considerable burden of responsibility,” but adds that “it’s disappointing when they don’t amount to much more than Oscar bait.”

Justin Chang, writing in the Los Angeles Times, felt that Emancipation failed to do the true story of “Whipped Peter” justice, and he had particular issues with Richardson’s muted cinematography, which he feels was at odds with the survival thriller Fuqua was aiming for. Chang writes that the movie’s tendency to pull away from Peter’s point of view makes it more difficult to maintain tension.

The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw was more effusive in his praise for Emancipation. In a four-star review , Bradshaw said that Smith brings movie star presence and dignity to a historical character like Peter. However, the third act is less strong. Bradshaw writes that while the final confrontation with Fassel may seem anticlimactic because it takes place before Peter’s military enlistment third act, this movie is strong, fierce and heartfelt.

Emancipation is well-intentioned but painfully overwrought,” writes Nick Schager in his review for the Daily Beast. Schager starts his review asking if audiences are ready for Smith to forgive him. However, Schager also dwells on Smith’s “wooden portrayal” of Peter as “both an emblem and a fully realized person, which prevents Smith’s ability to get beneath the character’s traumatized, ferocious exterior.” The director’s direction was also criticized by Schager, who wrote, “While Fuqua’s characters are archetypal, and therefore a suitable fit to a rousing adventure-adventure (if not outright exploitation affair), the director plays things too selfserious and stately in order to generate any momentum and excitement.”

Empire‘s John Nugent opens his review of Emancipation with the line that “slavery is a near-impossible subject matter to get right on screen.” The critic says that the precedents of the genre put Fuqua in a bind, and so “in order to set the scene, the filmmakers feel obliged to first give us the same horrific imagery common with nearly every film of this kind.” Nugent did think Smith was outstanding as Peter and he felt the third act, when the film moved away from “unrelenting inhumanity,” did Emancipation hit its stride.

In his review for Indiewire, David Ehrlich described Emancipation as “an over-inflated B movie with little gold delusions of grandeur.” Ehrlich writes that “by virtue of its release date, subject matter, and star power alone, Emancipation was created to be seen through the same narrow lens of the system that produced it, and “The Slap” — an existential threat to any feature so dependent upon the Oscars for market enthusiasm — ironically did even more to yoke the movie into Hollywood’s annual horse race at its own expense.” Ehrlich adds that Smith gives “a simple but committed turn” that smacks of courting Oscar voters.

Richard Roeper, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, felt that Emancipation was a decent period action film let down by overkill and silly moments, but fundamentally he wanted more substance. “It’s a well-made film with some admittedly exciting action sequences, but even after 2 hours and 12 minutes, it feels as we’ve just skimmed the surface of this important piece of American history,” Roeper writes. Foster and Bingwa were praised by the critic for elevating characters that were essentially one-dimensional.

Collider‘s Ross Bonaime admired Smith’s performance in the film. “For an actor that has been so reliant on his charisma in many of his roles, Emancipation requires Smith to be silent and still, full of anger that is ready to burst, but with a faith that helps move him away from this righteous rage. Bonaime writes that Smith is given moments that feel like the Big Oscar Montage Moment. But he’s at his most when he’s quiet and reacting to his surroundings and situation. He adds that the film, despite all its intentions and unusual choices, “suffocates beneath a wooden script full banality, a director who can’t keep the story moving, and cliches bordering on parody .”

Emancipation will be released in select theaters Dec. 2, followed by a global streaming debut on Apple TV on Dec. 9.

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