Emancipation review | Will this be Will Smith’s redemption?

Emancipation tells the story of Peter, a slave who escapes his plantation to reunite with his family, but his journey is full of danger. Read our review of Will Smith’s latest film. 



Antoine Fuqua’s name has come to mean quality. Ever since Training Day, he has shown incredible promise as a dynamic, visual filmmaker.

Which is why it’s so disappointing to say that his newest film, Emancipation, is such a drag. 

Fuqua sets out to give us the backstory of Peter, a slave who posed for one of the most famous photographs in history. In the photo, he shows his back to the camera, showing off the thick, bulging keloid scars from countless whippings. Fuqua recreates the moment in his film, but there is very little truth to it otherwise. 


Credit: AppleTV+

In the film, Peter is separated from his family and taken away to build a railroad. It’s back-breaking work, and many do not make it, collapsing from exhaustion. The slaves are punished harshly for the slightest transgression, even just looking up at the wrong time. 

Peter is tenacious and vows to return to his family, so when the opportunity arises, Peter escapes. His journey takes him through the swamps of Louisiana, where he must dodge threats ranging from alligators to cruel hunters who are more likely to shoot first than ask any questions. 

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Peter relies on his unwavering faith in God and desire to see his wife and children again to get him through his journey. He is portrayed to have almost superhuman strength as he first tears the door from its hinges as he’s dragged away from his family and later when he wrestles with an alligator. 

Fuqua clearly idolises the character he is showing us here, but it also creates this wall between Peter and the audience. It doesn’t leave any room for nuance and creates yet another narrative of a suffering Black man. 

While Emancipation can be mighty, it’s also an undeniably difficult watch. It’s brutal throughout and often dips into cruelty. Fuqua often refuses to turn his camera away from the relentless suffering endured by almost everyone in the film. The aim is to come across as brave and unflinching, but instead, Fuqua seemingly feeds into the narrative that to be Black is to suffer. These characters are shaped and, ultimately, defined by their suffering. 

Emancipation will also always be known as the first “post-slap” film for Will Smith. As such, and completely by coincidence, it comes across as an attempt to redeem himself. It’s a committed, ferocious performance from Smith. He’s giving Peter his all, but the script, written by Bill Collage, is the issue here. 

The film’s visual look doesn’t help the weak script. It’s another attempt by Fuqua to say something, but in reality, the desaturated, almost black-and-white colour palette just proves quite ugly to look at for 133 minutes. Women Talking had a similar issue, but Sarah Polley’s delicate storytelling made up for the visuals. Emancipation is like being hit in the head with a mallet. 

It’s hard not to compare Emancipation to the vastly superior 12 Years A Slave. While the latter knew how to approach the story’s inherent violence while leaving the audience with a sense of hope, the former desensitise you to the violence by showing excessive amounts of it. Emancipation could have been great with the right creative choices, but Fuqua’s film leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. 

Emancipation is now streaming on AppleTV+.

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