So then, this is the first feature release starring Will Smith since that incident. You remembered the one, where the actor bitch slapped Oscar host Chris Rock on stage in March 2022, that was witnessed live by over 16 million Americans on the night, and no doubt countless millions more worldwide when it was reported globally.
This film then, is somewhat of a litmus test on Smith’s current popularity, which certainly took a significant hit after getting all slappy happy.
It’s probably no accident then that his first film back is a sombre drama, retelling a remarkable story in black US history.
Living in Louisiana with his family is Peter (Smith). Their lives are thrown into chaos when Peter is taken against his will by soldiers to work, in slavery, building railway tracks.
It’s there that he hears soldiers talking of President Lincoln, and how he’s decreed to free all slaves, not that they have any intention of doing so. It’s not something Peter forgets however, and decides that he must escape, and somehow make his way to Baton Rouge, Where there is no longer slavery.
But hearing that slaves are free is completely different from actually being free, as Peter soon discovers, when he manages to escape, only to be hunted by his captors, who are in no mind to let anyone free.
Although entitled Emancipation, Antoine Fuqua’s latest may as well have been called redemption, as it feels that’s exactly what Smith is aiming for with it.
It’s loosely based on a real story, with the key emphasis on ‘loose’, surrounding a famous image of a bare-backed black man, which illustrated the horrors of slavery featuring the numerous scars where he had been viciously whipped.
It feels that some creative license has been built around what may have happened to this man during his life, as opposed to being anything more concrete than that, other than the picture.
This leads to what is essentially a chase scene that lasts for around 90 minutes, which sees Smith on the run from Ben Foster, playing Charmaine Bingwa, who was paid to hunt down any escapees. Much like Smith’s character in the swamps of the Deep South, the film loses itself in this seemingly endless encounter, with Bingwa close to catching Peter only to have him slip through his grasp.
The film becomes more interesting in the last half an hour, with the story thankfully developing a little further, but by then there’s every chance the audience will be suffering from chase fatigue.
Even Fuqua seemingly struggles with the constant chasing through the swamps, by utilising a visual technique, that feels like it could have been lifted from Instagram, which is essentially black and white with occasional accents of colour, just to keep it interesting. It doesn’t. Sadly it just feels like a cop out, as it would have been far braver to go full on black and white instead of using this silly filter nonsense, that only distracts if anything.
And then there’s Smith. Now his acting ability has never really been brought into question, as he’s proven himself time and time again, but he does come across as needing to prove a point here, playing a truly solemn character. And there’s no doubting his brilliance, putting in an outstanding performance as he does, only to be let down by what is a flimsy script. Whether it’s enough to turn public opinion – as well as the Academy who have banned him from the event for ten years – back in his favour, we'll have to wait and see.
There is a certain irony however, to Smith playing a character carrying many scars from his past, just as, no doubt, the actor is carrying a few mental ones of his own from recent history, with both men keen to move on from them and not have them define them.
Yes Smith impresses, but Fuqua’s direction is surprisingly disappointing, with a script that believes itself to be more worthy and powerful than it really is, for what is ostensibly a really long and fairly dull chase scene for the most part.
Whether Smith’s performance is Oscar worthy is certainly an interesting thought, far more interesting than the film itself sadly.
Although the film itself doesn’t quite deliver, it feels like the right performance at least for Smith’s comeback. Whether he pulls it off or not, only time will tell.