Emancipation: Has ‘slapgate’ influenced reviews of new Smith film?
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Will Smith pictured at the premiere of Emancipation in Los Angeles earlier this week (Reuters photo)
Will Smith pictured at the premiere of Emancipation in Los Angeles earlier this week (Reuters photo)

WILL Smith’s first film since he slapped comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars has received a broadly warm response from critics.

But many reviews of Emancipation also focused on the wider narrative surrounding Smith – and whether the film could provide a path to his redemption in Hollywood.

Set in the 1860s, Emancipation follows a slave, known as Peter, who escapes from a plantation and flees through the swamps of Louisiana, chased closely by his former masters.

The deadly cat-and-mouse premise sees a wounded Peter seek clothing, food, water and hiding places for several miles as he attempts to evade the slave hunters.

He is seen encountering dangerous animals and attempting to cover the scent of his blood so it can’t be picked up by sniffer dogs.

The film, which was shot before this year’s Oscars took place, has attracted several four-star reviews – although a few critics graded it as low as two stars. Some focused solely on the film’s content, but others debated the circumstances surrounding the release.

Industry figures are waiting with interest to see how the public will react to the film, after Smith was disgraced for smacking Rock on stage during March’s Academy Awards.

“That scandal may temper audiences’ enthusiasm for seeing what would regardless be a brutal portrait of slavery, but positive reviews might at least encourage fans to seek out this sturdy drama,” noted Screen Daily’s Tim Grierson.

The slap was referenced in the headline of a four-star review of Emancipation written by The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, who said: “This tough, tense chase thriller could prove Will Smith’s redemption.

“Will Smith’s new film was shot in the summer of 2021, long before The Slap was so much as a tingle in his palm,” Collin noted.

“But if he had specifically sought out a project that would get the world to move on from the fracas at March’s Academy Awards, he could have hardly found a more convincing one. Emancipation is a finely crafted, unflinching pursuit thriller.”

Emancipation is loosely based on the real-life story of Gordon, a former slave also known as “Whipped Peter”, who was the subject of a famous photograph which showed the impact of slavery.

The picture shows severe scarring of Gordon’s back from whippings, and became one of the most well-known photos of the abolitionist movement during the American Civil War.

Some critics, such as Deadline’s Valerie Complex, did not mention the slap at all while delivering their opinion of the film.

Instead, Complex examined the “ongoing debate on about whether films like this are ‘trauma porn’, or unnecessary in an age where the black people yearn for modern stories of other types of heroics”.

“Honestly, the thought of walking out crossed my mind several times,” she wrote of Emancipation. “Not because the film wasn’t up to par, but seeing so much black death onscreen is exhausting and painful, and there is only so much I can take – even if the ending of a film is hopeful.”

But other critics did reference the moment in March when Smith hit Rock after the comedian made a joke about Smith’s wife Jada. (BBC)

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