Will Smith makes a case for “Best Actor” with his stirring performance in ‘Emancipation’

The world may not be ready to welcome back Hollywood’s Fresh Prince so soon after last year’s debacle, but he earned the right to be in award conversations after his performance in Emancipation.

With direction from Antione Fuqua, Will Smith plays Peter, better known historically as Whipped Peter. As the story goes, Peter escaped enslavement from the Lyons’ Louisiana plantation and fled on foot for 10 days. Take a minute to imagine that. If you were to run away from home, school, etc., you’d be running away in shoes and likely across sidewalks. Armed men with shotguns were in pursuit of Peter, with bloodhounds, and ran through muddy swamps, barefoot, for 10 whole days before stumbling upon a Union encampment.

In the film, Peter relies heavily on his faith to get him and his family through the day. When they become separated, he had faith that God would keep him safe and that one day, he would return to them. Because of the strong portrayal of faith in the film and in real history, Fuqua did a good job showing the realities that slaves were faced with. Turncoats, black people that aided white men in hunting down runaway slaves, and the bible thumpers who repeated the same limited bits of scripture that only promoted slavery and obedience to one’s master.

If you’ve seen one slave movie then you’ve seen ’em all, but, this one breaks away from the norm. It flees from somber period dramatics and instead continues in the direction of severe tension and courage.

Smith puts on a memorable performance in the film – a performance that should guarantee at least consideration for Best Actor this awards season. Other notable performances include Charmaine Bingwa as Dodienne, Ben Foster as Jim Fassel, and Michael Luwoye as John.

Emancipation gets a 9 out of 10. The first 30 minutes of the film are heavy and may trigger those who are sensitive to the violence associated with films regarding slavery. All eyes will be set on the date March 12, 2023. Fuqua and Smith should at the very least get nods for Best Director and Best Actor respectively.

-Jon Jones

Photos: Courtesy of Apple TV+

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