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 always has 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. 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, apologise publicly to everyone he feels he needs to, and have Chris Rock attend for Smith to shake his hand.
 
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Let me state here and now, Will Smith deserves a nomination for Best Actor for his riveting performance in ‘Emancipation’, an unsettling, astonishing new drama about slavery near the end of the Civil War. The film is based on the story of Pete, an escaped slave who permitted a photograph of his 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 of 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.

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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 treatment 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 backwater, Pete runs, fighting off alligators that infest the waters, leeches, and 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.

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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. The revealing of his back, finally, is horrifying because we think we are prepared, but nothing can prepare anyone for that 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?

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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 laser attention, he loses himself in the role, and quietly, and stoically gives an astonishing, heartbreaking performance. Oh that the Academy had honored 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 actors, 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 color, Emancipation might be the darkest and most 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.

The Cinemawala Rating: 4/5

About The Author: 

John H. Foote is among the best known film critics in Canada, and has been active as a critic for thirty years. His career began as co-host, co-producer of the popular movie talk and review program Reel to Real. He left the show after ten years for his first love, print criticism, he longed to write about movies. For two years he wrote for Toronto Life and Fashion Magazine, his work quote in the LA and New York Times, as well as major papers across North America. He was offered a position writing for the internet and has since wrote for incontention.com, thewrap.com, screenrant.com, awardscircuit.com and most recently thecinemaholic.com. In May, 2018 he started his own site https://Footeandfriendsonfilm.com, which has enjoyed great success its first few months. Foote was also involved in film education teaching film history and film genre at Trebas Institute before leaving to be Dean of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history and continued his work as a critic. Foote has written two books, Clint Eastwood : Evolution of a Filmmaker, and Spielberg: American Film Visionary. His third, American Cinema in the Seventies is due for release in 2020. 

Through his career he has interviewed everyone in the business except Jack Nicholson. 

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