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Will Smith as Peter and Ben Foster as a slave master in a still from Emancipation. Photo: Apple TV+

Review | Emancipation movie review: Will Smith plays an escaped slave in 1860s America in harrowing true-life drama

  • Will Smith plays Peter, a character based on an escaped slave whose horrific whipping scars, photographed in the 1860s, bolstered the case for emancipation
  • Beautifully shot in an almost monochromatic tone, Antoine Fuqua’s hard-hitting drama shows Smith in one of his best roles

4/5 stars

“I am not a slave. I am a man.” So says Peter (Will Smith), a deeply religious character of seemingly unbreakable resolve who endures everything that’s thrown at him in this harrowing true-life drama.

Emancipation is inspired by a real person – known only as Peter. A photograph of his shockingly scarred back went viral, at least as viral as photos went, in the 1860s. The brutality of slavery in America could no longer be denied.

The film largely concerns itself with Peter’s escape from his white oppressors after he learns that the abolition of slavery is imminent. Following a violent altercation, he flees with three others through the swamps of Louisiana, heading to Baton Rouge, where he hopes to “follow the sound of Lincoln’s cannons” and find safety among the Union soldiers.

Tracking him, relentlessly, is Ben Foster’s gun-wielding thug. “We got work,” he says, bluntly, when Peter and the others flee, showing just how he views being a slave master.

Emancipation is directed by Antoine Fuqua, who has recently concerned himself with workmanlike remakes of films ( The Magnificent Seven) and TV shows (The Equalizer). This is a far more cultured piece of work, beautifully shot in an almost monochrome tone.
Will Smith as Peter (front), Michael Luwoye and Gilbert Owuor in a still from Emancipation. Photo: Apple TV+

Naturally all the attention will be on Smith, in what is his first film since his notorious assault on Chris Rock at this year’s Oscars ceremony, and in truth this is another dedicated, deeply committed turn by the actor, every bit as impressive as his Oscar-winning work in King Richard.

Some will undoubtedly accuse Fuqua of indulging in gratuitous violence – yet these tough-to-take scenes feel necessary. When Foster’s character forces Peter to kneel in front of his dog, which is barking just inches from his face, it’s an utterly dehumanising moment that crystallises the experience of those in bondage.

From then on, as Peter makes it through the swamps, Emancipation has the feel of a survival thriller, something like Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn. It’s a gruelling watch, as Peter faces the threat of snakes, alligator attacks, mosquito bites, and the constant risk of capture.

Will Smith in a still from Emancipation. Photo: Apple TV+

Does the film add anything to our knowledge of slavery? Arguably not. It’s a straightforward work in many ways, one that makes you shudder at this horrifying slice of history.

Emotionally, the film doesn’t fully resonate in the final scenes, which feature an extended – and unexpected – turn towards the matter of the American civil war. But it’s still delivered with all the impact of blunt force trauma.

Emancipation will start streaming on Apple TV+ on December 9.

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