Too soon? Probably. But the 54-year-old is very good in the movie, and maybe even — buckle up — an Oscar contender.
Running time: 132 minutes. Rated R (strong racial violence, disturbing images and language). In theaters Dec. 2. On AppleTV+ Dec. 9.
“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 and that won him the Oscar for last year’s “King Richard.”
Now, Smith’s quick comeback — in a film from Apple TV+, the same company that gave us Best Picture winner “CODA,” that was already in the can pre-slap — could prove a headache for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His performance is solid enough to earn him a Best Actor nomination, if not a win against front-runner Brendan Fraser for festival favorite “The Whale.”
With a believable, quiet Haitian accent, he plays “Whipped Peter,” the subject of the famous 1863 photograph of an abused former slave that helped enlighten the world to slavery’s inhumane evils.
Forcibly separated from his wife (Charmaine Bingwa) and kids in Louisiana, Peter and three other men in captivity run away from an oppressive work camp to Baton Rouge to try to join up with Abraham Lincoln’s Union army — and claim their freedom after learning about the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Lincoln freed the slaves,” they whisper — and begin to plot.
The men trek through treacherous swamps, pursued by their former owner, Fassel (Ben Foster, too James Bond villain-like), his henchmen and vicious hunting dogs while trying to survive their environment’s natural dangers. Peter gets into a tussle with a gator. (Hey — Leo DiCaprio won the Oscar for battling a bear!)
Director Antoine Fuqua underlines the anguish of Peter’s story with a lot of gruesome imagery — a man is branded, there are slaves’ severed heads on spikes and we see a mass grave covered in flies, among other stomach-churning sights. It’s tough to take, but the right way to honor Peter’s horrific photo. The film’s color palette, too, is not fully black and white, but washed out like a faded picture.
What hinders Fuqua is a résumé packed with action thrillers. Sometimes the movie’s tone and attitude leans more “Equalizer 2” and less “12 Years a Slave.” Marcelo Zarvos’ unrelenting score, before it finds cinematic sweep during a later Civil War battle, suggests a modern revenge movie featuring cars and cool sunglasses. Of course, Fuqua’s 2001 crime thriller “Training Day” didn’t receive Best Picture, Director or Screenplay Oscar nods — but Denzel Washington nonetheless won Best Actor for his performance in it.
Don’t be surprised if Smith snags, at least, a Golden Globe nomination for “Emancipation.”
The scandal-plagued Hollywood Foreign Press Association is itself making a comeback after an embarrassing diversity scandal that led NBC to cancel the 2022 broadcast. And, awkwardly for them, the field of lauded male actors this year is #SoWhite: Fraser (“The Whale”), Colin Farrell (“The Banshees of Inisherin”), Austin Butler (“Elvis”), Bill Nighy (“Living”) and Hugh Jackman (“The Son”) lead the pack. At the Globes, Butler will likely be on the shortlist for best actor in a musical or comedy, and so could Farrell. An earlier collaboration between Farrell and director Martin McDonagh, “In Bruges,” was deemed a comedy by the HFPA. That leaves multiple openings for Smith — and an opportunity for the HFPA to boost the sagging ratings of its struggling ceremony.
Smith clearly isn’t hiding from the spotlight anymore, either. Last week, he did a so-so apology interview with Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show,” and spoke with Fox 5 DC about the controversy’s repercussions, saying he will “completely understand” if viewers are not ready to see “Emancipation” because of the slap.
For the time being, if Smith is nominated he will not be allowed to attend the Oscars. The Globes and SAG Awards are fair game. However, who thought eight months ago that he would even be in contention for an Oscar? In Hollywood, anything can happen.