WHERE Streaming on Apple TV+ starting Friday; also in theaters
WHAT IT’S ABOUT In 1863, Harper’s Magazine published a shocking photograph of an escaped slave whose back had been whipped into a furious scribble of scars and welts. At the time, horror-stories of Southern cruelty were easily dismissed as hyperbole — but here was photographic proof. The picture became famous as “The Scourged Back” and helped strengthen Northern resolve in the final years of the Civil War.
As for the picture’s subject, most information about him — including his name, Peter — is likely inaccurate and possibly flat-out fabricated. Which is to say, he’s a story ripe for the Hollywood treatment.
Will Smith plays Peter in “Emancipation” — the actor’s first movie to address slavery. It's also his first movie following his disgraceful Oscar-night slap of host Chris Rock, which resulted in Smith's 10-year ban from the ceremony. "Emancipation,” a survivalist action-thriller directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) from a script by William N. Collage, seems positioned as Smith’s comeback; it even received a one-week Oscar qualifying theatrical run before debuting on Apple TV+.
MY SAY Before we get to Smith, let’s address yet another controversy surrounding this movie. Its producer, Joey McFarland, showed up to the Los Angeles premiere holding the “Scourged Back” photograph itself. “I wanted a piece of Peter to be here tonight,” he said. That fine-sounding sentiment struck some as disrespectful: Why did this guy bring a fraught historical artifact to a movie premiere? Voices sounded off on social media, and McFarland apologized.
McFarland’s gaffe is somewhat analogous to the movie he produced: well-intentioned, slightly misguided and a little self-serving. Granted, “Emancipation” isn’t trying to be a serious drama like “12 Years a Slave.” Nor is it trying to push audiences’ buttons like Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” Its closest comparison might be a peak-period Mel Gibson movie like “The Patriot” — an old-fashioned adventure story with clear heroes and despicable villains.
Smith plays the Haitian-born Peter as a man of quiet faith raising a family with his wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), while enslaved on a Louisiana plantation. Hearing that Lincoln has freed the slaves, Peter makes a break for freedom with three others (Gilbert Owuor, Jabbar Lewis and Michael Luwoye). Their goal: to make it to the Union forces in Baton Rouge before they’re captured or killed by Fassel, an eerily easygoing slave-tracker played by Ben Foster.
“Emancipation” can be a pulse-pounder, especially during its scenes in the perilous swamps. (Remember that bear in “The Revenant?” Here it’s an alligator.) The movie is duty-bound, however, to show us the brutality of slavery: point-blank shootings, decapitations and so on. These scenes don’t exactly broaden our understanding of the antebellum South, and they’re a heavy price to pay for a movie that’s trying to stay fleet-footed.
As for Smith, “Emancipation” is a good reminder of the actor’s versatility. This time last year, he was a charming tennis dad in “King Richard,” the role that would earn him his first Oscar. Peter is a less nuanced figure, but Smith disappears into him completely, looking alternately hunted, haunted and murderous. If the film doesn’t fully gel — its late detour into the midst of the Civil War is spectacularly staged but feels like an afterthought — it's no fault of Smith’s.
For all its harrowing moments, “Emancipation” is best judged as a piece of entertainment, and on that point it just about succeeds. Redemption for Smith, however, may still be some distance away.
BOTTOM LINE An imperfect vehicle for Will Smith’s post-slap comeback.