Review: Will Smith’s Oscar hopeful “Emancipation”superior audio – cpn

It is arguable that all movies benefit from a theatrical experience – though some do more than others. The benefits are not merely technical (superior audio & video quality) but also behavioral. A paying public in a cinema is a captive audience and usually sticks with a film to the bitter end. At home, on streaming platforms, abandonment is easy and, by all accounts, frequent. This latter practice is likely to hurt Emancipation, which concludes with a sensational Civil War action set piece that is sure to rouse audiences. Only they have to get through 90 minutes of airless tedium to get to it.

Emancipation is a project undoubtedly born out of noble intentions. The infamous Whipped Peter photograph, showing the horrifically lacerated back of a Black man, remains a powerful contemporaneous record of the unimaginable cruelty suffered by Black Americans at the hands of white slave owners…

The photo’s subject, Peter – or Gordon as he is alternatively named – has been sadly lost to history – with little of his life before or after the photograph documented in any detail. He has been known to us only through the abuse that he suffered. Not any more; When historians hit a dead end, storytellers step in. Emancipation imagines a fictional life for Peter and seeks to give him the characterization that history was unable to.

The little details known about Peter are preserved as best as they can be with other embellishments added in to create a storyline. We begin in 1863, at a cotton plantation in Louisiana, where Peter (Will Smith) is enslaved alongside his wife and kids. Peter is separated from his family after he’s sold to the Confederate Army to assist in the war efforts. He’s led to a war camp in Clinton, Louisiana, where he must assist in building railroads to move Confederate artillery. When word spreads among the enslaved Black men in the camp that Lincoln has freed them via the Emancipation Proclamation and that the Union Army is a few days’ journey away in Baton Rouge, Peter leads a revolt & escapes into the swamps of Louisiana headed for the Union camp. White supremacist Fassel (Ben Foster) gets on his tail and relentlessly pursues Peter with his pack of mercenaries and rabid dogs.

Ben Foster in “Emancipation”

This thin premise sets off a pursuit thriller, in the backwaters of Louisiana, that occupies the bulk of Emancipation. Unfortunately, this is also where director Antoine Fuqua’s limitations as a filmmaker come to the fore. Fuqua is a reliable studio hand and has made a career out of crafting muscular mainstream entertainments with marquee stars. But a largely wordless, episodic narrative about a single man braving the elements & surviving has Fuqua beat. Even when the man on screen is Will Smith, the focus is squarely on the filmmaking to make ordinary acts compelling for a sustained amount of time. It requires stupendous directorial rigor – think Roman Polanksi’s work in The Pianist or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work in The Revenant. Both incidentally won the Best Director Oscar. Fuqua is not about to join their ranks.

Quiet scenes of Will Smith trying to find food or nursing his wounds are interspersed with action moments – like a gratuitous fight with a crocodile. Even so the samey jungle setting & the drab visual look render these sections excruciating & soporific. It is a relief when the final confrontation between Smith & Foster arrives – audiences might think the ordeal, theirs not Smith’s, issurely coming to an end. Only, Emancipation, in a surprising turn, tacks on a lengthy coda – a third of its running time, unrelated to anything we have seen before. Even more surprisingly, this is by far the best portion of the film and actually makes it worth the price of admission.

In the final third, we improbably find ourselves in the middle of a war picture, not anticipated by anything before, and it is here that some of Fuqua’s assertions in the press make sense. He said it’s the best directing he’s ever done. Suddenly, the film transforms into the stately prestige epic it wanted to be all along. Smith makes it to the Union Camp and is drafted into the U.S. Colored Troops – freed Black men that bore arms against the Confederacy. Emancipation, then stages its finest set piece, recreating the historic Siege of Port Hudson and one of first infantry assaults led by Black Americans. And it’s a doozy – a Spielbergian tour-de-force. In its staging of the visceral chaos of war, it recalls such earlier heavyweights like the battle scenes in Cold Mountain, Saving Private Ryan, War Horse or even this year’s All Quiet On The Western Front. We also get the recreation of the famous Whipped Peter photograph.

The last section is good enough to make us rue the miscalculation at the heart of the film’s conception – it should have been about the final third all along. Fuqua & Smith should have severely curtailed the uninteresting pursuit thriller to focus much more prominently on the U.S. Colored Troops and Smith’s place among them. The film’s award chances remain imperiled due to star Will Smith’s actions at the 2022 Academy Awards. But one can’t help but wonder if Emancipation would have been a bigger player had it been a straight up war picture. Those are much likelier to find favor with the Academy than a survival thriller in the jungle. And it would also have made Emancipation a better film than it is.

Most of the ingredients to make a classy package are all here. This is an expensive production and the period recreation is detailed and with specially excellent art direction. When the scenes call for the proverbial thousand of extras, they are present to populate the battlefields. Cinematographer Robert Richardson’s images have considerable scope and sweep and the almost black-and-white but not quite color scheme actually works during the war scenes. Though, we have to express reservation about this new mode of film grading, also infamously applied in Sarah Polley’s Women Talking. It seems like a half measure to superficially qualify Emancipation as a “color film”. Why not get rid of the last vestiges of color saturation and just make it a black and white film instead?

Charmaine Bingwa in “Emancipation”

There isn’t a large ensemble but the actors acquit themselves well. Will Smith, controversies notwithstanding, is one of our greatest stars and turns out a committed & physical performance. Some will be moved by the obvious emotion he brings to the part in the film’s concluding moments. Smith has famously resisted making a slavery picture for most of his life, even passing on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. He said he agreed to make this one because it was about Black love. While his passion is admirable, one wishes the script matched his commitment. Charmaine Bingwa, an Australian actress, is excellent as his wife with convincing Haitian accent as well as Haitian Creole dialog that’s subtitled in English. Mustafa Shakir is also terrific as real life Black army captain André Cailloux in a brief appearance. Ben Foster, in a thankless role as Smith’s hunter, is saddled with a one-dimensional part and responds with a one-dimensional performance.

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