“They don’t make the Gladiator/Braveheart-type movies anymore” is the kind of complaint you’ll hear when talking about the state of popular cinema, specifically in regard to the growing disconnect between audiences and Academy voters. True: those rousing Hollywood epics are a sign of a distant past. But Apple Studios, with its seemingly infinite cash flow, has heard these cries. And nearly a decade after Steven McQueen’s harsh yet Oscar-triumphant 12 Years a Slave earned critical laurels as the definitive film on the subject of America’s greatest shame, they’re here to show there’s a new, seemingly gritty but also populist way to approach the matter.
Yet Emancipation is above and beyond a work of streaming-service hubris, in which 100 million-plus is put into turning the story of “Whipped Peter,” the most famous photograph to come out of American slavery, into the new historical epic. Sure to play out on a bunch of motion-smoothed 4K televisions to the divided attention of Candy Crush-playing office drones wiling time away after a long work day, this effort is both misguided and fruitless.
Emancipation dramatizes the man in that famous photo, Peter (Will Smith), a saintly figure who withstands one atrocity after another and retains his faith in God despite the horrors of his life as a slave on a Louisiana plantation. While awaiting liberation from the Union Army in the middle of the Civil War, any hope is dashed when he’s separated from his family to work on a railroad and witnesses cruelty beyond even the usual. Thus Peter realizes the only way to save his life is to make a run for it. Under the pursuit of brutal slave master Fassel (Ben Foster), a chase movie wrapped inside a history lesson ensues.
The conflict between heaviness (an extremely desaturated, ’90s Janusz Kaminski-esque palette) and spectacle (sweeping camera vistas and setpieces) plagues the movie throughout. Perhaps it’s because director Antoine Fuqua, a serviceable enough journeyman in the J. Lee Thompson mold, simply wasn’t the man for this job. A series of opening drone shots that map out spaces Peter will traverse is a bit of visual intelligence not representative of what’s to follow. Look no further than a seemingly Revenant-quoting venture into abstraction with a burning horse or direct Schindler’s List reference when a burst of color emerges from the blood splayed when Peter fights a computer-generated alligator underwater. Working with the ever-talented Scorsese and Tarantino cinematographer Robert Richardson, Fuqua’s touch is both leaden and cheesy throughout.
A bit of the movie-movie trappings also falls on Smith, a top-shelf charismatic star who often seems to veer into self-parody when playing dramatic roles. That is certainly the case here (his goatee doing no favors), with many of the less-recognizable co-stars playing fellow slaves putting him to shame. A bit of the fault lies in a script that makes his characterization so narrow, but even in the realm of a film this intent on mud, blood, and misery, you can see through Smith at every point.
And by the time Emancipation concludes on a large-scale Civil War battle, the sense of both overkill and triumphant reassurance sits a bit uneasily. The film serves less as a powerful echo of the white-supremacist present and more a sign of what risible Hollywood product resembles now.
Emancipation is now on Apple TV+.