Will Smith casts an Oscar-shaped shadow over the earnest ‘Emancipation’

Any discussion of “Emancipation” will inevitably be clouded by the Will Smith of it all, and Apple’s decision to release the movie into the teeth of awards season. The focus will thus skew toward Smith and the lingering fallout from “the slap” during last year’s Oscars, and away from an earnest, handsome film that’s generally solid but unspectacular enough to render that conversation largely moot.

Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) has teamed with writer William N. Collage to craft an elaborate plot around the real-life 1863 photo known as “Whipped Peter,” starkly illustrating the ravages slavery inflicted on the back of a man who escaped bondage after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Peter’s story thus becomes the spine of a grueling escape adventure, shot in striking black and white that only seems to heighten the harrowing nature of his flight, the dankness of the Louisiana swamps, and the brutality that it entails.