In July, Will Smith vowed that eventually, after more time and some space, we’d be able to trust him again. That what he did at the Oscars was not who he was. That he was committed to doing the work, walking the walk and so on.

It all sounded like the kind of publicity spin movie stars are so used to spouting, but his latest project, the historical drama “Emancipation,” is clearly an attempt to deliver on that promise.

While by no means a perfect film, “Emancipation” — in which Smith plays the real-life heroic Peter, an enslaved man who escapes to freedom — is certainly the perfect follow-up role for Smith, who cast himself as a villain on the Academy Awards stage in March after slapping comedian Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

“I promise you: I am deeply devoted and committed to putting light and love and joy into the world. And if you hang on, I promise we’ll be able to be friends again,” Smith said in an apology video released four months after the incident that forever altered the career of one of the last true movie stars.

At its core, “Emancipation,” which premiered Friday on Apple TV Plus after debuting in theaters last week, is a rumination on the power of love. “Love actually is a superpower. It’s a propulsion unlike any other thing,” the Oscar winner said during a late November interview with “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah.

When he first appears on-screen, Smith’s Peter is caring for his wife, gently scooping water in his hand and pouring it carefully over her outstretched foot while declaring his commitment to her. It’s an intimate moment, almost too intimate to witness. The scene is filled with love, passion and sadness, even before the audience realizes what is truly at stake: Peter has been sold to the Confederate Army, ripped away from the family unit he has managed to create despite the horrors of slavery.

Family, love, determination. These are the values that we learn drive Peter. Those are the same values, we assume, drive Will Smith the actor.

“[Peter] walked in the world with a knowledge of the divine … something I desperately wanted to understand and explore,” Smith said on “The Daily Show.”

The film is rooted in faith, as Peter’s belief in God orders his steps from the swamp to the battlefield. The religiosity of it could seem overwrought until you lean into the position Smith is in right now — what appears to be a reflective crouch rather than a power stance.

In her review of the film, Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday notes that separating the actor from his character could be a difficult task.

“Viewers will surely differ in the degree to which they’re willing to separate Smith’s messianic performance in ‘Emancipation’ from his outburst at this year’s Oscars ceremony. Some will be able to tease out Peter’s righteousness from Smith’s own sense of entitlement, while others may catch an unmistakable whiff of sanctimonious self-regard,” she opined.

It’s hard to get away from the notion that the movie is a metaphor for something larger. Though “Emancipation” was filmed during the summer of 2021 — long before that slap and the inevitable fallout — there is something there that tickles at the back of your mind while watching Smith as Peter contend with snakes, alligators, swamp rats, hunger and hypothermia to get to freedom.

The most interesting minutes of the film happen in the swamp, where Smith the actor is without his crutches: that famous voice and booming laugh. Instead it’s just pained looks, high cheekbones and solo, physical acting reminiscent of Tom Hanks in “Castaway” or Smith himself in “I Am Legend.” These scenes are some of the best in “Emancipation” not only because they add the narrative layer of a new environment to the trite convention of the “slave movie,” but because they strip away the celebrity.

The climax of Will Smith’s radical-vulnerability era

There are so many roles Smith can play — jokester, devoted father, action hero. And despite his decades-long success, the status of Smith’s upcoming film projects such as “I Am Legend 2” and “Bad Boys 4” remains cloudy. But this role, with its dual focus on the interior and exterior struggles of one man, is the only one anyone would want to see him play now. Peter is a fighter, a survivor. Is Smith?

“There’s nobody that hates the fact that I’m human more than me,” the actor told Noah. Smith always wanted to be Superman, the kind of hero who could swoop in and save the damsel in distress. “I had to humble down and realize that I’m a flawed human.”

In “Emancipation,” Smith gets to play both sides of that experience. Peter is a human man, whipped so badly he fell into a coma for months, whose photograph helped galvanize the abolitionist movement. But he’s also the type of preternatural leader who simply knows the right way to go even when no one else seems to, leading a group through the swamp to the transactional freedom of the Union Army in Baton Rouge. He’s a real-life hero (among many) who managed to survive the worst and come through the other side still standing.

“Get up! Get up!” Peter yells to his fallen Union comrades in one of the last big battle scenes of the film. “We are not dead. We must get to those cannons. We will fight.”

Is it triumphant? For Peter and the course of American history, yes. But for Smith? It’s a start.

This article has been updated.


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