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‘Emancipation’ review: Dir. Antoine Fuqua (2022)

A superb Will Smith leads the cast of this gripping work from accomplished filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, a feature based on a true story of one man who frees himself from slavery in the 1860s via a brutal 10-day-long cat-and-mouse chase across the Louisana swamp.

Smith is Peter, a family man enslaved with his wife and children on a cotton plantation in the deep south. This is 1860s America, the Civil War raging in the background and, when Peter is sold to the Confederate Army, he is taken from his family and subjected to a cruel regime through tortuous, continuous manual labor to build a railroad. There are rumours that President Lincoln has set slaves free, though this hasn’t influenced the way Peter and his co-workers are treated.

Determined to get back to his family, Peter sees an opportunity to escape and does so by narrowly dodging bullets and swerving ravaging dogs hot on his trail. With the horrible Fassel (Ben Foster) and his fellow slave-catchers snapping at his heels, Peter must overcome many obstacles on his long and challenging road to freedom – Lincoln’s army many days away in Baton Rouge.

Emancipation is certainly an epic piece of work, certainly a must-see on a big screen with Fuqua employing sweeping drone shots over the glorious southern landscape, even if a little enhanced by VFX. The first thing you’ll notice about the film is the visual colour pallette, or lack thereof, Fuqua and cinematographer Robert Richardson employing muted tones, almost monochrome with little flares of colour seeping through. As the film progresses, the eye does become used to the grading and one can totally appreciate Richardson’s stunning cinematography. The drone work is impressive early on, too, and during the film’s climactic parts, but in the middle section does become a little overused, often becoming repetetive and distracting from what’s on screen.

Smith is impressive, his character of Peter in almost every scene, often having to carry the story without a word of dialogue. Charmaine Bingwa is also excellent as Peter’s heartbroken wife, Dodienne, while there is further excellent support from its huge cast, particularly from Ben Foster, again so brilliant, and Steven Ogg, who most will know more recently for his role as Simon in The Walking Dead series.

Peter has to overcome many obstacles in his battle for freedom – not only from the horrible Fassel and his cohorts – a scene where they catch one of the men by a river opening is particularly tense – but also from the elements of the territory; from unrelenting insects to hungry crocs.

The film is supremely violent and not for a second shies away from the serious subject matter and such a dark time in American history. It is absolutely one of Fuqua’s best films and a million miles away from his last film, the rather forgettable Infinite. It couldn’t be much different from his other 2021 film The Guilty, that film very much a chamber piece – this is huge in scale and ambition and he really knocks it out of the park.

Some may be put off by its heavy subject matter, but one really shouldn’t. This is a well-acted, epically scaled, taut, brilliantly crafted film about a largely unknown story, one that is hard-hitting, supremely violent, and important to have finally been told.


Paul Heath



Will Smith is excellent in this true story of a man’s fight to escape slavery and return to his family – whatever the cost. Taut, extrememly violent and tense, but incredibly staged and supremely acted by all involved.


Emancipation is released on Apple TV+ from 9th December.


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