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Here's What Critics Are Saying About Will Smith's Emancipation

After a controversial year following his Best Actor win, Will Smith is set to enter this year's awards season with Apple TV+'s "Emancipation." The historical epic details the trials and tribulations of Gordon, commonly referred to as "Whipped Peter," an American slave who escaped from his plantation and became a leading figure in the Union Army. Gordon's story became widely known in a July 1863 issue of the now out-of-print Harper's Weekly, which reproduced a photo of him, titled "The Sourced Back," with several lashes on his back that he received in 1882 (via America's Black Holocaust Museum).

"Emancipation" serves as Smith's first collaboration with "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua. For Smith, "Emancipation" is a truly special film as it's the first time he's touching on the topic of slavery. "I've always avoided making films about slavery," the "Bad Boys" actor told GQ in a 2021 profile. "I didn't want to show Black people in that light ... I didn't want to make a slavery film about vengeance." What compelled Smith to take on Fuqua's latest epic? "This was one that was about love and the power of Black love," Smith told the outlet. "We were going to make a story about how Black love makes us invincible." Apple TV+, who recently nabbed Best Picture at the 2022 Oscars with "Coda," has heavy hopes for the Smith-led film, shelling out $120 million for the project (via Collider).

Critics have finally seen Smith's Oscar-hopeful and the reception is mostly mixed, though no one seems able to deny the effort and passion behind the Apple TV+ project.

Critics say Will Smith gives another career-defining performance

Early critical reception to Will Smith's "Emancipation" is mixed. The general consensus is that Smith has delivered another career-best performance with his Apple TV+ collaboration. Peter Debruge, writing for Variety, praised Antoine Fuqua's latest, describing it as a "brutal but essential slave saga." In his mostly positive review, Debruge points out how Smith and Fuqua approach the film's themes with care and respect. "[Smith] and Fuqua approach the subject of slavery with the same care Hollywood typically brings to Holocaust stories," Debruge writes, saying "there's an educational element to the experience."

Scott Mantz, taking to Twitter, described the film as "[p]owerful, breathtaking, gripping, rousing & life-affirming," before comparing the film favorably to the likes of "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan." As for its lead star's performance? "WILL SMITH gives a grueling, tour-de-force, Oscar-worthy performance."

Firmly sitting in Smith's camp is New York Post's Johnny Oleksinski, who is hopeful that the "Hancock" actor will receive another Oscar nomination for his performance as Peter. "'Emancipation,' which is an otherwise well-tread period drama about the horrors of slavery, features more of Smith's rich emotionality and laser-focused intensity that he's uncovered late in his career," the critic writes in his 3 out of 4 star review.

The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw had equally positive things to say about the film, which is slated to hit the streaming service on December 9, 2022. Bradshaw praised Smith's performance, saying he "brings a movie-star presence to this brutally violent civil war drama, with a physical stillness and defiantly steady gaze." The writer points out that the film functions greatly as a thriller, and while it has its fair share of stumbles, particularly in the third act, "Emancipation" is ultimately a "strong, fierce, heartfelt movie."

A solid performance is undermined by rough execution

Other critics couldn't help but point out how "Emancipation" lacked substance, criticizing its direction and screenplay. "It's a well-made film with some admittedly exciting action sequences, but even after 2 hours and 12 minutes, it feels as we've just skimmed the surface of this important piece of American history," wrote Richard Roeper in The Chicago Sun-Times. Roeper pointed out how the film features several moments that undermine the true, difficult battles faced by the real life Gordon.

IndieWire's David Ehrlich echoed similar sentiments, calling the film "an over-inflated B movie with little gold delusions of grandeur." The critic continued by saying the film was created solely as an Oscar-hopeful, describing it as "the kind of immaculate misfire that could only happen because Hollywood is spinning off its axis." Erlich pointed out how the film struggles to balance serious themes of slavery with heavy action setpieces, resulting in a less than compelling historical drama.

Valerie Complex of Deadline was particularly interested in the film's purpose and the message it was interested in delivering. "When walking into 'Emancipation,' I knew the film was about [Whipped Peter], but even knowing that, the film doesn't earn the reveal moment of Peter's scars," Complex writes, pointing out how the key scene comes out of nowhere. For Complex, the brutality of the film was striking, something that compelled the critic to consider walking out. "Not because the film wasn't up to par, but seeing so much Black death onscreen is exhausting and painful, and there is only so much I can take — even if the ending of a film is hopeful," Complex had to say.

"Emancipation" will hit Apple TV + on December 9, 2022.