Smith plays Peter, an enslaved man who flees from plantation owners who nearly kill him. According to the synopsis, the movie is inspired by “the 1863 photos of ‘Whipped Peter,’ taken during a Union Army medical examination, that first appeared in Harper’s Weekly.”
The film is directed by award-winning filmmaker Antoine Fuqua whose famous works include “Training Day,” “The Equalizer” and more.
The movie has so far scored a 58% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics commending the story but slamming the execution of the heavy topic.
The L.A. Times’ Justin Chang felt the film didn’t do the real-life Peter justice.
“The more the movie pulls away from Peter’s perspective, the more it undercuts its own tension. And even with a physically impressive production at his disposal, Fuqua’s filmmaking instincts are clumsy and prone to cliché,” Chang explained.
“If ‘Emancipation’ were nothing more (or less) than that action flick — leaner, meaner, less solemn, less monochrome — it would probably be a better, more honest movie,” he concluded.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Lovia Gyarkye called the movie a “shallow slave drama,” and found the story interesting but was disappointed in the execution. She said the film devolved “into a confused jumble of messages.”
“‘Emancipation,’ instead, lingers on a sensational battle scene precipitated by an attack on Confederate soldiers by the Native Guard. The image of the men — some born free, others previously enslaved — running through the field waving the American flag strikes an odd, discordant tone,” Gyarkye wrote. “It’s a conclusion too neat for a nation still avoiding its past.”
There were some positive reviews.
Variety’s Peter Debruge appreciated the movie’s “educational element” and believed “the tone seems appropriately sober. But the dramatic engine is that of a lean, mean manhunt movie.”
Debruge also noted the searing images the film portrays.
“When Smith finally bares the character’s back for the camera, most of us know what to expect, but that doesn’t mean we’re prepared for the sight,” Debruge explained. “‘Emancipation’ challenges us to look again, at that constellation of lashes, but also at every other blow against human dignity the film depicts.”
Scott Mantz touted Smith’s performance and the movie overall.
“Wow, what a movie. Powerful, breathtaking, gripping, rousing & life-affirming. It’s Antoine Fuqua’s ‘Schindler’s List’ & ‘Saving Private Ryan,'” he tweeted. “Best Pic & Director noms for sure. And Will Smith gives a grueling, tour-de-force, Oscar-worthy performance. #EMANCIPATION.”
“Emancipation” hits theaters on Dec. 2. It starts streaming on Apple TV+ on Dec. 9.