By John H. Foote

(****) Streaming on Apple TV

Despite the slap heard around the globe, despite the absolute humiliation he brought to Chris Rock, the Academy, the family of Richard Williams, and himself, Will Smith has always been a fine actor, and it was ridiculous to assume he would never be back in the Oscar race. True he was kicked out of the Academy, and he deserved that – and much worse – but nothing is preventing him from being nominated for an Oscar again if deserving.

Well, just a year later, Smith deserves to be a Best Actor nominee for his superb performance in Emancipation, a deeply unnerving new film about slavery near the end of the Civil War. He cannot attend the ceremonies to pick it up, but the man can be nominated. One would hope the next time he attends the Oscars he and his wife do not sit there like a King and Queen about to be crowned, so entitled, so arrogant. Better yet, if nominated this year, allow him to attend, and apologize publicly to everyone he feels he needs too, and have Chris Rock attend for Smith to shake his hand.

Emancipation is based on the story of Pete, an escaped slave who permitted a photograph of his terribly scarred back to be taken during a medical examination. The horrifying photo was widely distributed at the time and helped turn the tide against slavery, bringing about Lincoln’s long fought abolishment to this appalling disgrace to humanity. The American Holocaust? Slavery is so much more, bringing about a time of extreme cruelty, vicious beatings, uninvestigated murders, and the ownership of one man by another. It is still the darkest period in the history of the United States, and one of which Americans should be ashamed.

Will Smith in Emancipation

Speaking heavily accented French, Smith portrays Pete as a strong silent type, burning with indignation about being a slave, enraged over being ripped from his family and forced to work on the building of a railroad. We see the harsh treatments of the slaves, routinely whipped, limbs ripped from their bodies by vicious dogs used to hunt and terrorize them, fed slop that animals would leave to rot, and brutalized at every waking moment. More than any other film made before it, including the Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave (2013), Emancipation explores what slavery was, assaulting the senses with one horror after another. The only thing missing is the smell of the mass grave of dead men covered in lime.

Hearing of the Union Army taking the port in Baton Rouge, where black men are welcome, Pete runs with the monstrous Fassel (Ben Foster) hot on his tail, considering the hunt little more than sport. Through swamps and back water, Pete runs, fighting off alligators that infest the waters, leeches, bugs, with the sound of braying dogs in his ear, he moves forward. At one point he covers his body in rotting onions to deter the scent of a man, leaving the dogs and Fassel confused.

Once in Baton Rouge, Pete joins the North and fights against the South, believing his battle against his oppressors might help his wife and family back on the plantation.

Pete’s relentless journey to earn his freedom becomes metaphorically all black men and women’s fight to be considered human. His revealing of his back, finally, is horrifying because we think we are prepared, but nothing can prepare anyone for hat kind of brutality. What kind of man could take a whip and lash another man, leaving the flesh torn, bone exposed, and blood all around. Perhaps the more important question might be what sort of man survives that ordeal?

Fuqua has made the finest film of his career and I hope he gets nominated for an Academy Award. He manages to make the film an urgent history lesson and yet a great adventure film at the same time. Brilliant job.

As Pete, Smith does the best work of his career, period, and let’s not forget he has been very good before. Here. intensely focused with almost a laser attention, he loses himself in the role, and quietly, and stoically gives an astonishing, heartbreaking performance. Oh that the Academy had honoured the true Best Actor last year, Peter Dinklage in Cyrano, and Smith might win this year, a little more humbled after losing the year before. Is he truly deserving of consecutive Best Actor wins?

He is indeed.

Ben Foster continues to be one of American cinema’s finest actor, superb here as the repellant Fessel, a true horror show of a human being. After nearly two decades of great work, when does Foster finally get the attention he deserves?

Shot in beautiful black and white, with eventual touches of desaturated colour, Emancipation might be the most dark and grim beautiful film of the year. Tough to endure, but the images showing the hurt and pain are stunning.

One of the year’s best films.

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