Over the last decade or so there have been several television shows and films that have dealt with slavery and its effect on the men and women who lived this lifestyle. Harriet, The Underground Railroad, and 12 Years a Slave have garnered a lot of critical and fan support so Emancipation the latest film from Antoine Fuqua has a lot to live up to. I’m here to say it rivals all of the films and series I mentioned. It’s one of the best films of this year.
Peter (Will Smith) is a slave on a plantation with his family in Louisiana. He gets sold to the Southern Army to help build a railroad. He bides his time but eventually, he escapes his captures. Races through woods and swamps on his way to Lincoln’s army. He survives vicious alligators, snakes, and a slave hunter Jim Fassel (Ben Foster), and his posse. He will do whatever he can to get back to his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and his kids.
This might be the most personal film to date for Fuqua. He gets a lot of mileage out of this story of a slave trying to get back to his family. The story itself is based on a man whose picture was taken and sent around the world to show the effect that slavery had on men and women in this country. What Smith’s character and many other men and women went through was definitely an ordeal nobody today would want to go through that for sure.
Will Smith has had a rollercoaster ride of a year. He has won a bunch of awards including the Best Actor Academy Award for playing Richard Williams the father of Venus and Serina Williams. All anybody could talk about is the unfortunate moment where he slapped Chis Rock for insulting his wife regarding her alopecia. He deserves better than that though and his performance in Emancipation might cap off a year nobody could have expected. Another Oscar nomination could be in his future. He gives a raw and gritty performance as this man trying to survive to see his family once again. He has two Oscar moments in this film that are too hard to overlook. These may thrust him into the conversation for Best Actor once again.
Fuqua and Smith both do their thing in this movie but some of the other cast are very good as well. Ben Foster plays a hunter trying to return Smith’s character to the camp he escaped from. He plays this character relatively straight though he doesn’t use much emotion to get across his displeasure or anger. Other actors played soldiers or slaves and they all fit their parts perfectly. The cast was very good in the film.
Some of the technical aspects of the film are phenomenal though. The cinematography by Robert Richardson, one of the best in the industry, is the best in any film I’ve seen all year. It is a bit muted with splashes of color thrown in here and there. Most of the movie is filmed in glorious black and white with some green representing the palm frowns and brush in the woods and swamp and red from some bloody cuts and animal bite Smith’s character and others endure throughout the film. Once in a while, their skin color of Smith is shown to give some reverence to his character. This movie is gorgeous to behold.
Another part of this incredible movie is the costumes by Francine Jamison-Tanchuck and the makeup and hair styling by a group of people. They made these characters look the part of dirty slaves and various soldiers on either side of the war depicted in the film. The clothes were mostly rags and tatters but they worked very well to show the circumstances these men and women were in. The muted cinematography helped make these actors look all the more dirty and grimy. Along with the blood that was added to give them a little color.
Apple has put all its cards on the table with Emancipation and they’ve got a royal flush. They have a winning hand and they may have the jackpot waiting for them. Nobody saw this coming especially after the year that Smith had, except for them. This film wasn’t supposed to be any good and instead, it’s great! Critics and online pundits are preparing for the inevitability that this is a legitimate Oscar contender for many categories including Best Actor for Will Smith. Nobody wanted this but they’re going to get it. And the movie Fuqua and Smith deserve everything it can get because this movie is a masterpiece. It’s the best film Fuqua has directed in twenty years and tells an amazing true story about survival and sticktoitiveness.
Dan Skip Allen