In a world where The Slap never took place, Will Smith would be looking at another Oscar nomination for his performance as the enslaved person known to history as Whipped Peter. Somehow, against all odds, he flees bondage in a camp where he is being worked to death and runs through the Louisiana swamp — pursued by a monomaniacal runaway tracker (Ben Foster) on horseback — to join the Union army. Word is, “President Lincoln has freed the slaves.” So that’s where Peter wants to be.
He also wants to be reunited with his family. Filmmaker Antoine Fuqua (“The Magnificent Seven,” “Training Day”), who can handle action and drama alike, has mounted an epic spectacle that showcases the horrors of slavery, the wily strength of survivor Peter as he outwits the hunters hellbent on killing him, and the cannon-fire Hell of the Civil War.
In short, Smith easily carries “Emancipation” and would usually be a shoo-in for Best Actor honors at the SAG Awards and the Oscars. He even has an Oscar moment, a heartbreaking confession to a Union general of how he’s not a runner, he’s a fighter. AppleTV+ is introducing the movie late in the award season, without festival kudos or tributes, but its high profile will ensure that it will be seen when it hits theaters December 2 and streams December 9 for audiences and awards voters alike.
SAG voters without Academy loyalties could well vote in Smith. But it’s hard to see Academy members being willing to forgive and forget so soon. After all, Smith is banned from attending the Oscars for 10 years. He could still get nominated, but chances of that are slim.
Smith has been on an apology tour of late, from an appearance on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” to the red carpet at the premiere in Los Angeles. Standing in front of the audience at the Regency Village Theatre in Westwood, he introduced the movie by first calling “Emancipation” an “absolute monster of a difficult film to make.” Maybe aware of his own awards prospects, Smith shifted the attention toward co-stars Foster and Charmaine Bingwa (“The Good Fight” star plays his steadfast wife making her own sacrifices to ensure her family stays together).
“The work that Charmaine and Ben have done not only is spectacular in the film, but they have changed me as an actor, and elevated me as a human with the time that we spent together, and their work in this film,” said Smith of the Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress hopefuls.
The star also took a moment to praise Apple Studios, saying, “I’ve worked everywhere in town, and you guys are the top of the top. I just have to say, there were many days when the plug could have gotten pulled on this thing and your devotion to bringing this story to your audience and to the world. I salute you.”
As for “Emancipation” itself, reviews have been mixed so far — a Metascore of 59 is not where you want to be for serious Oscar consideration — but Fuqua’s sepia aesthetic and grand battlefields may score some respect from the crafts. Read IndieWire’s review here.