Photo: Oscar worthy powerhouse performance by Charmaine Bingwa in ‘Emancipation’
‘Emancipation’ broadens Will Smith’s filmography to a place that fans have yet to see the superstar in yet. Adapted from the famous photo titled ‘Whipped Peter’ that exposed the cruelty against American slaves that showed the world the severe scars on an ex-slave due to whipping, ‘Emancipation’ is a historical action drama telling the tale of a slave named Peter and his long journey escaping to freedom from a Louisiana plantation. The film takes an interesting plot change throughout. Going from a survival chase thriller to a historical war-epic once reaching the scene the film was adapted from, the film’s plot feels lackluster sometimes.
Two of the big reasons for that are the long runtime of over two hours and the sense of no progress for the duration of the movie. The war section of the film did add some value to the film, as the portion of the film consisting of Peter’s hunting by the plantation owners was the dull slow burn that viewers with short attention spans would despise. Aside from the slow plot and almost empty dialogue in the script, the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ star compensates for the longing emptiness with his stellar performance that displays his decades of experience as an actor.
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The film takes a stylistic approach to its cinematography with the decision to make the majority of its film in black and white besides some reds for blood and the bright fires. Aesthetically, the film is muted in saturation everywhere. It is not completely void of color, but ‘Emancipation’ has no vibrancy, with coloring so dull that the viewer cannot tell if it is truly monochromatic or if the eyes are playing tricks. The decision for a monochromatic color palette for the film took away some of the attention-grabbing abilities the film was already lacking from. With the film being a historical slow burn, many films can make up for that by maintaining watchability through its cinematography or dialogue. Unfortunately, being a black and white film before the age of modern electricity leaves the film dim and boring on the eyes, and being a film requiring stealth from the characters means little dialogue and just watching Peter hide and forage alone in various locations. That being said, the film’s star quality exists as the actor’s performances.
The cinematography could have been one of the film’s strong suits if not for the decision to cut the color. Robert Richardson, the film’s cinematographer, who has credits working with Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese, brought some of the best long shots displaying the swampy setting of Louisiana and the battlefield during the war portion of the film. As far as the directing goes, it is evident of Antoine Fuqua’s experience in thriller films. Despite the lack of substance in long portions throughout, the scenes where there is something to pay attention to are strategically filmed and edited together to maximize the tension. The stakes are high for the scenes that consist of the thrill and Fuqua did a great job creating that.
Will Smith Makes ‘Emancipation’ Worth Watching
Proving with this film why Will Smith was and still is one of Hollywood’s most sought out lead actors, Smith dives into his ‘I Am Legend’ and ‘Suicide Squad’ action film side and brings this unseen portrayal to life. The film does not stand to be unwatchable, as those that are fans of Will Smith have a great chance to watch Smith in this role which he has yet to touch base with which is a runaway slave from the 1800s. Smith is the main reason for the film’s compellingness. Smith’s performance is one of his best, with so little dialogue to work with in his character creation, he makes up for it and brings the bravery and will of his character, Peter, to life through his demeanor and aura alone. This performance could lead Will Smith to his second Oscar, that is if he is still allowed to receive any wins let alone be nominated due to his ban from the show.
Will Smith has more to come with his action filmography with three upcoming films. One of those is the fourth installment of the ‘Bad Boys’ franchise titled ‘Bad Boys 4.’ The second is a film titled ‘Fast and Loose,’ which is about the leader of a criminal organization returning to his crew after an insomnia-inducing attack. The third film is ‘The Council,’ which is about a man named Nicky Barnes, titled “Mr. Untouchable” by New York Times, who was a member of a Harlem-based crime syndicate from the 1970s to 80s. All of these projects are in pre-production and have no release date as of yet.
Other Notable Performances in the Film
Ben Foster, known for his role in ‘Hell or High Water’ as Tanner Howard or ‘X-Men: Last Stand’ as Angel, plays the menacing and relentless slave owner out to get his slaves back. Jim Fassel, Foster’s character, gets down the deceitful and power-tripped personality that villainous plantation owners in films are given and Foster nails this performance startlingly well. Along with Foster, Steven Ogg, who is known for playing similar roles in country-esque projects like Trevor Phillips in ‘Grand Theft Auto V,’ Simon in ‘The Walking Dead,’ and Rebus in ‘Westworld,’ adds to the threatening severity of white slave owners well. These types of roles perfectly fit Ogg’s typecasting and his presence added to the danger of the setting given his antagonist role.
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Charmaine Bingwa is the true breakout star of this film with a powerhouse performance worthy of an Oscar. She plays the distraught wife of Peter, who was separated from him once he was taken from the family to go work on the railroads. With her own battles on the side, having to fight for her fidelity to Peter, she has the difficult duty of raising her children alone on the plantation while ensuring their safety as well. Her performance (though not provided as much screen time as the lead, Will Smith) will undoubtedly be a top contender to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress in The Oscars.
‘Emancipation’ is now available to stream on Apple TV+.
ACTORS: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Steven Ogg
DIRECTOR: Antoine Fuqua
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Robert Richardson
SCREENPLAY: William N Collage
By Nino Vongphachanh
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