A runaway slave forges through the swamps of Louisiana on a tortuous journey to escape plantation owners that nearly killed him.

Fresh off his Oscars win for ‘King Richard’, you would have expected Will Smith to be at the top of the world, particularly as his latest film sees him play a leading role in a film about slavery that was also being touted (before anyone had seen it may I add) for awards recognition. ‘Emancipation’, now released on Apple TV, has certainly now been overshadowed since Smith’s infamous slap on Chris Rock, although having now seen it, I don’t suspect it would have been troubling the awards bodies in any case.

Emancipation’ loosely bases its story of a former slave called Gordon, who had photos taken off his badly whipped back which helped to demonstrate the cruelty of slavery to the wider world and ultimately strengthened the abolitionist movement. Called Peter in the film and played by Smith, we follow his battle for survival after he manages to escape his plantation with the aim of reaching one of the free states that he and some fellow slaves had got word of. I found this to be a really odd beast of a movie, in that it essentially takes the horrible historic context of slavery as the basis for a thrilling action movie, and plays it as a fairly straightforward escape thriller. I’m not sure the harsh reality and the true life basis of ‘Gordon’s’ story works in this context, but it can’t be denied that ‘Emancipation’ can be viscerally entertaining at times.

It plays its story out as a cat and mouse chase between Peter and Ben Foster’s cruel slavecatcher Fassel, who will let nothing stand in his way as he relentlessly hunts down Peter and any other escaped slaves. One monologue, delivered expertly by Foster, will chill you to the bone. If you can ignore the real life basis for ‘Emancipation’, this works as an entertaining action movie, but it’s hard to put that to the side and I think ‘Emancipation’ suffers as a result, and would have benefited from a more tactful storytelling approach.

Rating: 3/5

Directed By: Antoine Fuqua

Starring: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Steven Ogg, Mustafa Shakir, Timothy Hutton, Gilbert Owuor, Grant Harvey and Ronnie Gene Blevins


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