(KTLA) – Critics are complaining about Will Smith’s slave drama ‘Emancipation,’ which is the star’s first film venture after the infamous slap in the face at the Oscars in March.
Smith plays Peter, an enslaved man fleeing plantation owners who almost kill him. According to the synopsis, the film is inspired by “the 1863 photographs of ‘Whipped Peter,’ taken during a Union Army medical examination and first published in Harper’s Weekly.”
Directed by award-winning filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, whose famous works include Training Day, The Equalizer, and more.
The film has so far earned a 58% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics praising the story but criticizing the handling of the heavy subject matter.
Justin Chang of the LA Times felt the film didn’t do justice to the real Peter.
“The more the film moves away from Peter’s perspective, the more it undermines its own tension. And even with a physically stunning production at his disposal, Fuqua’s filmmaking instincts are clumsy and prone to cliche,” Chang explained.
“If ‘Emancipation’ was nothing more (or less) than this 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 film a “superficial slave drama” and found the story interesting but was disappointed with the execution. She said the film turned into “a jumbled mess of messages.”
“‘Emancipation’ instead dwells on a sensational battle scene triggered by an attack by the Native Guard on Confederate soldiers. The image of the men — some born free, some previously enslaved — running through the field waving the American flag strikes an odd, dissonant tone,” wrote Gyarkye. “It’s too neat a conclusion for a nation that still shuns its past.”
There were some positive reviews.
Variety’s Peter Debruge appreciated the film’s “educational element,” saying “the tone seems suitably sober. But the dramatic motor is that of a skinny, nasty mugshot.”
Debruge also noted the searing imagery 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 this constellation of lashes, but also at every other blow to human dignity that the film portrays.”
Scott Mantz praised Smith’s performance and the film as a whole.
“Wow, what a movie. Powerful, breathtaking, gripping, intoxicating & life-affirming. It’s Antoine Fuqua’s ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan,'” he said tweeted. “Definitely the Best Picture and Best Director nominations. And Will Smith gives a grueling tour de force Oscar-worthy performance. #EMANCIPATION.”
Emancipation hits theaters on December 2nd. Streaming on Apple TV+ begins December 9th.
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