Metacritic (6/10), Letterboxd (3/5), Imdb.com (6/10)
Depicting the horrors of slavery is never an easy task for a filmmaker. How much is too much, and how little is too little? Either way, directors often face the dilemma of being labeled gratuitous or of underplaying the savagery of an institution typified by unspeakable atrocities. And, in a story where the victims are running for their lives, where does one draw the line? That’s particularly pertinent here, where the protagonist flees for his freedom after it had already been legally granted by Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Director Antoine Fuqua’s ambitious effort to tell the fact-based story of a slave (Will Smith) who made his way through the Louisiana swamp to seek the protection of Union forces, all the while threatened by myriad natural dangers and the relentlessness of trackers looking to capture him, is quite a compelling tale. The filmmaker’s effort holds little back in telling his protagonist’s epic story while successfully managing to avoid becoming needlessly wanton, and he does so with positively stunning black-and-white visuals. However, the picture’s overlong manhunt sequence could have been trimmed considerably without losing much or becoming less effective, getting viewers to the much more impactful and emotionally moving closing segment more expeditiously. Of course, it’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning the presence of Will Smith in his first film role since his regrettable actions at the Oscars. Many viewers have opted to skip this offering completely, and many reviewers have used their overwrought criticism as an excuse for punishing the actor for his bad behavior. However, as much as I disapprove of what Smith did, I have long made it a practice of attempting to separate artists and their art from their outside lives, judging their works on their merits and not on their personal behavior. It’s indeed unfortunate that Smith may well have torpedoed his career because of the slap, especially in light of his fine performance in this film, a portrayal that might have otherwise earned him another Oscar nomination and could have been a springboard to other coveted roles. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but, given the piling on response that has occurred in connection with this performance, I wouldn’t bank on it. What’s more, many of the other cast members and crew who worked on this production may suffer the consequences of guilt by association. To reiterate, I don’t approve of what went down, but I also don’t approve of what’s going on in connection with the response to this offering. It may not be perfect, but it doesn’t deserve to be unduly dumped on for someone’s off-screen behavior. To do so, in my opinion, is a real slap in the face.