Will ‘Emancipation’ be Will Smith’s redemption story?

Reviled star seeks career rehab playing enslaved escapee

Where: Apple TV+
What: Movie, 132 mins.
When: Fri., Dec. 9
Genre: Fact-based historical drama
Why you should watch: Will this be the role that saves Will Smith’s reputation and career? In his first staring gig since The Slap Heard Round the World, Smith plays an escaped enslaved person struggling to get to “Lincoln’s Army” after fleeing a Louisiana plantation near the end of the American Civil War with the ultimate hope of reuniting with his enslaved family.

Under normal circumstances, the discussion around Will Smith’s lead role in Emancipation, a prestige release (out Friday on Apple TV+, which specializes in prestige releases) would be whether the star would win another Oscar for his performance.

But after The Slap Heard Round the World, the talk is whether this film can rehabilitate Smith’s reputation and career. The answer is a definite — maybe. Smith plays Peter, an escaped enslaved person who breaks from his Louisiana enslavers near the end of the Civil War. His goal is to reach “Lincoln’s Army” and ultimately reunite with his enslaved family as a free man.

Smith is resolute in a film that, by definition, is bleak, as any accurate depiction of the life of an enslaved person will be. While not quite as brutal as Barry Jenkins’s 2021 series, The Underground Railroad, Emancipation unflinchingly depicts the appalling circumstances of Peter, his family and all the enslaved at the hands of their cruel white “masters.”

Smith has limited dialogue since he spends much of the film hiding and attempting to avoid detection from evil slave hunters. The lack of dialogue might serve Smith’s Oscar ambitions because when he speaks, his attempts at creating a French-inflected accent, appropriate for the Haitian-born enslaved person he plays, are unconvincing and awkward.

Emancipation is another important depiction of life of the enslaved, telling an aspect of American history that remains grossly underrepresented in the culture. It is an unpleasant story to depict but shards of hope, including the resilience required to survive such an existence, make the film bearable. On whichever side one’s ancestors were in this existential powerplay, Emancipation proves an important vehicle for understanding.

In fact, Smith’s real-life character did play a significant role in the understanding of slavery though that enticing detail is buried late in the film by the filmmakers.

Whether Smith’s stoic but not-stunning depiction of the fleeing Peter will earn him Hollywood’s redemption remains as mysterious as why he snapped and delivered the slap.