'Emancipation' review: A powerhouse Will Smith lifts the wobbly Apple TV+ action thriller – USA TODAY

The stylish period drama “Emancipation” tries to juggle, with mixed results, an assortment of genres: survival thriller, action adventure and Civil War epic. Yet it mainly works, due to a quietly powerful performance from Will Smith as an enslaved man just trying to get home.
There is a Homeric quality to director Antoine Fuqua’s film (★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters now and streaming on Apple TV+ Friday), which takes the well-known 1863 photograph of “Whipped Peter” – showing the scarred and mutilated back of a Black soldier serving in the Union army – and creates a fictionalized, often brutal journey of faith and fortitude. The heart of the matter gets lost amid the action-movie elements – with shades of “The Revenant” and “Glory” – though a dedicated Smith emotionally steadies the film through its rougher spots. 
Peter (Smith) is a Haitian-born Christian working the cotton fields on a Louisiana plantation. “The Lord is with me. I will not be afraid. What can a mere man do to me?” he tells his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and family. One day, Peter is ripped from his life by Southern goons – he literally tears the hinges off of his door trying to stay with his loved ones – and taken to work at a Confederate labor camp.
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The story 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. Learning that enslaved men are heading for Baton Rouge, where Lincoln’s army is located, Peter pulls off a risky escape with a few others. But they’re pursued through the swamps by vicious “manhunter” Jim Fassel (Ben Foster), whose prejudice is born from shame and fear. He’s not the only problem, however: Peter also encounters natural obstacles such as bees, leeches, snakes and one very hungry alligator.
Armed with uncanny survival skills, Peter meets Andrew Cailloux (Mustafa Shakir) and becomes part of his all-Black regiment of Union soldiers, but never sets aside his larger mission.
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Smith’s strong performance shores up missing pieces of character development, which is an issue overall for “Emancipation.” We know what kind of man Peter is, yet we don’t really get to know him: how he knows to put honey on a gnarly wound or rub onion on himself to get dogs off his trail. So much of the film is spent on the chase or war scenes that at key times it becomes more about the action than the man at the center.
From a technical standpoint, though, Fuqua’s filmmaking impresses on a few levels. The monochrome cinematography lends a distinctive feel, accentuated by uses of spot color – for example, crimson blood on leaves or the red of a child’s dress. And tracking shots of swamps and landscapes show the scale of Peter’s quest and the horrors of battle.
There’s a propulsive quality to the film, especially with Peter on the run. Yet it’s not an easy watch, with images of decapitated heads, sounds of whips and screams, and other horrific traumas suffered by enslaved people of the time. One of the most unsettling scenes has Peter trying to sneak past a house when a little white girl sees him. Just as you hope she won’t say anything, she rings a bell and shouts, “Runner!” in a moment that nods to the film’s real-world themes of learned racism and systemic prejudice.
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“Emancipation” truly finds itself when it digs into the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of Smith’s character as he trades barbs with Foster’s Fassel, has a discussion about God and slavery with a fellow prisoner or stands up to a dismissive military man who questions his fight. 
It’s been quite a year for the actor, from winning an Oscar to the aftermath of “The Slap,” but at least he ends 2022 with a strong reminder of his talent. Sure, there are little glimpses of Smith, the charming movie star.  But it’s his commitment to capturing the authenticity and agony of the struggle by Peter (and those like him) that stays with you the most.


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