Emancipation Review: Will Smith's powerful performance remains the highlight of this affecting drama

Emancipation stars Will Smith in the role of an enslaved man named Peter who charts his escape on a perilous journey. Read Pinkvilla's review of the film below.

Updated on Dec 09, 2022   |  08:29 AM IST  |  219.4K
Will Smith
Emancipation releases on AppleTV+ on December 9.


Cast: Will Smith, Ben Foster

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Stars: 3/5

Language: English

Streaming Platform: AppleTV+


Emancipation is Inspired by the gripping true story behind an 1863 photograph of the slave whose escape the film is based on. He was known as “Whipped Peter” because of the nightmarish mass of scars on his back. The film follows Peter (Will Smith), an enslaved man who is taken from a plantation in Louisiana to lay railway tracks for the Confederacy. The film chronicles Peter's perilous journey as he risks his life to escape and return to his family. Emancipation is set after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation when hundreds of thousands of Black people had to wait for the North to liberate them or take their freedom themselves. While Peter charts an escape with a few others in the film, he is being pursued through the swamps by vicious "manhunter" Jim Fassel (Ben Foster). Amid his escape journey though Peter also happens to face other nature's beasts including leeches and an alligator. Peter also meets Andrew Cailloux (Mustafa Shakir) and becomes part of his all-Black regiment of Union soldiers. 


Emancipation has been in the news as Will Smith's "comeback" film following the Oscars controversy that broke out earlier this year. After slapping Chris Rock on stage at the Academy Awards ceremony, Will Smith who bagged the Best Actor Oscar for King Richard now returns with another powerful story although this time it doesn't quite turn out to be as impactful as one would have hoped for. One of the major reasons why the film despite its affecting storyline, doesn't reach its true potential is probably because of director Antoine Fuqua's choice to make this film a mixture of a survival thriller and civil war drama. The tonal shifts that this film makes tend to make it a confusing ride in terms of genre. 

In terms of unsettling scenes, Emancipation does manage to build several moments that are heartbreaking. The sound of whips and screams certainly don't make this film an easy watch. In terms of the technical aspects of the film,  monochrome cinematography lends a distinctive feel to the entire story although the use of slo-mo and tracking shots as we follow Peter (Smith) on his escape through the swamps sometimes turn the film into a strange survival action zone. 

The film's plot also suffers from a major problem and that is it maintains its focus on Peter's actions way more than his mind. There's little that we get to know about him aside from the fact that he's driven by the will to see his family again. Yet, some pieces feel missing when it comes to building his complete personality. In terms of performance, Will Smith gives his best to bring out an earnest performance that rises above the shortcomings of the plot. 

Plus Points:

Emancipation is brutally affecting and particularly some moments stand out, one of them may be on how it captures the idea of systemic prejudice. In one of the film's most emotional scenes, when Peter (Smith) is trying to sneak past a house, a little white girl sees him.  For a second, you are hopeful she doesn't say anything but  we then see her ring a bell and shout, "Runner!" It's a powerful scene making a commentary on how concepts such as racism infiltrated young minds. 

Minus Points:

In recent times, there has been a debate over how stories of Black suffering should be told in today's time. One school of thought believes that the storytelling must step away from recreating the portrayal of Black pain but rather adapt a different approach. In the case of Fuqua, the director tries to tell a story that talks about suffering as well as survival. Although in the case of survival scenes, it's the choice of using God's-eye shots and other choices that at several points feel like stripping the film away from its deeper meaning. 



  • Will Smith delivers a strong performance.
  • The film's affecting narrative.
  • The monochrome cinematography.

Emancipation doesn't turn out to be either Will Smith or Antoine Fuqua's best work. Instead, the film finds itself in a middle space where it boasts of a strong performance by Smith that tries to keep the film afloat even in its weakest moments. 


ALSO READ: Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith make FIRST red carpet appearance with family after Oscars drama

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