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There Are Many Jump Scares on the Path to Baton Rouge
Will Smith struggles through the terrifying swamps of Louisiana in "Emancipation."
President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, that all enslaved persons in the South were to be considered free by the United States, is the catalyst for Emancipation’s main action of escape, chase, and ultimately freedom for a slave and his family, of course; it’s in the title of the film. It is also an excuse for much cinematic horror, almost in the style of a slasher flick, if as one extended race through a virtual slaughterhouse. That is a slightly hyperbolic statement, but also pretty true. Emancipation might technically be a war picture or a thriller, but at heart, it is a fright.
Will Smith plays Peter, a man separated from his family and forced to work on a railroad for the Confederacy. Heads on pikes, chopped limbs, whipped skin, and piled-up corpses make up the smokey-grey environment from hell. Welcome to the Civil War. Welcome to the South. Ben Foster plays an infamous slave hunter who almost immediately recognizes Peter’s fiery attitude, sensing a potential matchup. And soon, in a split-second moment of rebellion and self-preservation, Peter is off. Having overheard of the proclamation, he is determined to make his way to Baton Rouge, where the Union army is stationed. From there, he will find and free his family by any means necessary.
Part of me wants to call this a historical acid horror, similar to Apocalypse Now. This label would and should be seen as silly to those who have yet to view the movie, but somehow it feels right. There are peculiar fantasy-like moments that make little literal sense, like Peter coming upon a plantation mansion on fire in the middle of the night. There are other oddities that play with what’s real and what’s a legend, and it’s all welcome. Director Antoine Fuqua and crew have developed into this tale of survival something much more than simple suspense; fear. Fear of dangers expected and unexpected, and fear of the future.
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Smoggy and foggy with cannon smoke and humidity, Emancipation just never lets up. Will Smith faces off with alligators, with relentless hunters, and eventually with a whole army, all of which challenged my eye contact with the screen. The movie looks ugly and dirty and is downright violent in a near-grindhouse exploitation way. Near, mind you. This is no Django Unchained. Actually, it’s more Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day sequence, if the Nazis were replaced with Leatherface. This fight for freedom is never ending and always brutal, which becomes somewhat exhausting, but rarely boring or unimportant.
Will Smith is, as always, a phenom. He is 100% dedicated to and absolutely taken with Peter and his journey. He sweats, he breathes heavily, he bleeds, and he keeps the faith. This was expected before my screening and was confirmed afterward. But it’s not Smith that makes the movie; he’s good, but not the end all be all. Is there a tinge of vanity in his film? Maybe, but no more than in Dwayne Johnson’s invincible Black Adam performance. And, if vain, so what? Emancipation delivers drama and terror with and against the grain of American slavery films, even when it’s a redundant sensory overload.
For me, this movie is made by its supporting cast and its themes. Ben Foster is brilliantly villainous, without a shred of decency displayed. He’s just so hateful and hateable. Not deliciously like Freddy in the Nightmare of Elm Street sequels, but like the horrific version of the character in the original movie. Mustafa Shakir as a black Union soldier is wonderfully stoic and strong, and Paul Ben-Victor as a smarmy Union bureaucrat is perfectly rounded and representative of the proclamation’s “fine print.” His performance in particular sets up and sums up the theme of everlasting and systemic oppression, where true freedom and equality are in sight but just out of reach. Where the formerly enslaved are still seen as mere objects, or “contraband.”
Fuqua is at his directorial best, Robert Richardson just kills it with the cinematography, and the production design is off the charts grimy and dirty, and dangerous. Emancipation should be great with all of the above at play but it is held back by being overdone, overexcited, and overwhelming. Taking in the scope of the threat and the massiveness of the pain being inflicted is too much for this movie to balance with what should’ve just been the fantastical and punishing chase. Instead of being one movie, Emancipation goes for making two or three at once and subsequently is just too much to handle and too hot to hold, no matter the thrills and chills.
And yet, the film deserves a special notation when the book on 2022 in cinema is written. Not for Will Smith’s public choices, but for being a movie that captures a time, a place, and a country’s fate for what it was and what it will be: horrific. 3.5/5
Emancipation will begin streaming on Apple TV+ starting December 9th and is currently running a theatrical release.