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Almost 160 years after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the United States continues to reckon with the reprehensible practice and ingrained racism in American society. If black filmmakers like Antoine Fuqua and stars like Will Smith still feel there’s something to be said about slavery, it’s best not to dismiss it.

However, in her new Apple TV+ film emancipation, they cannot prove the necessity of this particular story. Smith plays Peter, a man who is enslaved along with his wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) and their children on a Louisiana plantation. Peter is loaned out to the Confederate Army to help build a railroad that will allow the army to move more quickly across the countryside.

Shortly after his arrival, however, he hears that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves beginning January 1, 1863. Encouraged by this discovery and the knowledge that the Union Army is in nearby Baton Rouge, Peter and other men attempt to escape at their first opportunity, with hunter Jim Fassel (Ben Foster) hot on their heels.

Written by Bill Collage and rumored to be based on a true story, most of the film plays out in the same unfortunate fashion Harriet did a few years ago as a misguided adventure story. While the danger to Peter and his fellow fugitives is certainly real, their plight feels cheapened by the film’s focus on being pursued by a seemingly omniscient villain.

A big part of what drives Peter to overcome all the obstacles he faces is his desire to return to his family, an idea that is universal in theory but never really catches on in practice. We hardly get to know his family at the beginning of the film, and even a few check-ins during the film can’t increase the emotional stakes. The filmmakers try to fabricate drama with his wife, but since she isn’t a full-fledged character, the idea fizzles out.

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Towards the end of the film, there is much talk of a famous photo of Smith’s character, said to be the final exclamation point of the film’s message. However, as presented, it comes out of nowhere and feels pinned rather than important, a final misjudgment in a movie full of it.

Smith, who has an accent from the unnamed African nation Peter hails from, does his best in the role, but it doesn’t fit him like a glove. Perhaps he’s too famous now to take on such a role, or perhaps the fallout from his Oscar controversy is still too fresh, but his performance doesn’t feel award-worthy. Foster has the face and poise to play a villain like this, and even when the role is a grade he fills it well.

There may still be interesting and new ways to talk about the slavery era in America, but emancipation is not the film to make such a case. Smith may find his way back into the favor of film fans, but he needs a better vehicle than this film.

emancipation is now streaming on Apple TV+.

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