Will Smith presents us with the ultimate Hollywood paradox.
He appears at once both at the height of his acting powers (he won the 2022 best actor Oscar for playing tennis uber-dad Richard Williams in “King Richard”) and at the apex of showbiz infamy (for slapping presenter Chris Rock at the Oscars, mere minutes before winning said Oscar).
Smith, 54, was immediately cast into industry purgatory for his actions, with many projects scuttled or delayed. But now one of them is set for release, opening up the possibility the actor could be nominated for another Oscar, despite being banned from Academy Awards ceremonies until 2032.
Here's what we know about “Emancipation” (in select theaters now, streaming on Apple TV+ Dec. 9), his Civil War-era drama about a slave escaping to freedom:
What is Will Smith's new movie 'Emancipation' about?
The film is set a few months after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, which freed Black slaves and invited them to join the Union Army to help turn the tide during the Civil War.
Enlisting required escape from Southern plantations, and “Emancipation” tells the story of one such slave, known as Peter (played by Smith), who has to make his way through creature-haunted Louisiana swamps and past dog-wielding slave owners to reach Union lines.
Is 'Emancipation' based on a true story?
Countless slaves attempted such dangerous escapes, and “Emancipation” follows the travails of two, Peter and Gordon (Gilbert Owuor). The movie appears to be based heavily on the story of a real escaped slave named Gordon, who famously was photographed in 1863 with his back to the camera, revealing the atrocious scarring he developed as a result of whippings.
Historians contend this photograph helped turned public sentiment against slavery by presenting undeniable proof of its cruelty. Peter adopts some of the real Gordon's saga, and the trailer includes a quick shot with Peter's back turned toward a photographer.
Not ready to watch a Will Smith movie? 'I completely understand,' he says
In an interview Sunday on "Fox 5 Washington D.C.," Smith was frank about the fact that some movie fans may not be eager to see him on the big screen after the Oscars incident last March.
“I completely understand that if someone is not ready, I would absolutely respect that and allow them their space to not be ready,” Smith said in the video interview, which included director Antoine Fuqua. “My deepest concern is my team. (Fuqua) has done what I think is the greatest work of his entire career. My deepest hope is that my actions don’t penalize my team."
What happened on the 'Emancipation' red carpet?
While walking the "Emancipation" red carpet Nov. 30, producer Joey McFarland pulled out a small photo to show reporters: an original image known as "The Scourged Back" dating from the Civil War era that shows the scarred back of a slave known as Peter. It was an inspiration for "Emancipation."
McFarland told reporters he wanted a piece of Peter to be at the premiere. But the blowback was immediate: The Black List founder Franklin Leonard tweeted: “Why do you own the photograph? Why did you bring it to a movie premiere if the intent is to preserve it respectfully?”
On Dec. 4, McFarland posted on Instagram, saying he "apologized to everyone I have offended" by bringing the photo to the event. He concluded: “These photographs, which existed before me, will be around long after I am gone; they belong to the world. My goal has always been to find the right permanent home and make sure they are accessible, to honor their significance.”
How gritty is 'Emancipation'?
Fuqua opted to tell the story in a fascinating hybrid of color and black and white. The trailer for “Emancipation” suggests the film is unsparing in its depiction of the harsh realities encountered by fleeing slaves, and also elaborate in its presentation of gruesome Civil War battle scenes. (The historical action film was written by Bill Collage, who also wrote 2016's "Assassin's Creed.")
Fuqua is best known as the director of “Training Day” (2001), for which Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his lead role as a corrupt cop. Fuqua has also directed the “Equalizer” feature film series, and directed and produced the 2019 documentary “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali.”
Don't expect the usual peppy Will Smith role
For years, Smith's stock-in-trade was an instant likability, anchored to an infectious smile. Whether rapping (as part of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince), romping in a sitcom (NBC's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air") or starring as a dating guru ("Hitch"), Smith rarely wavered from a persona that helped make him one of Hollywood's biggest stars.
Given that background, "Emancipation" is a huge leap for Smith, well beyond his more serious star turns in "Concussion" and "The Pursuit of Happyness." The trailer depicts a more somber and harassed Smith, whose familiar features seem less recognizable.
Could Will Smith win another best actor Oscar?
Despite being hit with a 10-year ban for slapping Rock this year, there is nothing preventing members of the motion picture Academy – who include actors, directors and producers – from nominating Smith for his role in “Emancipation.” He presumably just wouldn’t be able to attend the show to receive it.
After the slap heard around Hollywood, Smith resigned from the Academy and later apologized for his actions to the public and to Rock. The slap occurred after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who has an autoimmune disorder (alopecia areata) that causes hair loss.
Screening draws raves, but Will Smith critics abound
In early October, Smith and Fuqua attended a screening of "Emancipation" in Washington, D.C. Guests included members of the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus and other Black organizations. Tweets from some of those in attendance lauded both the film and Smith's portrayal of Peter.
"Can’t begin to tell how powerful this is for OUR community and OUR history. It’s a story of adversity, of resilience, of love, and of triumph," NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson tweeted. But a Hollywood Reporter survey of dozens of Academy voters in October found that while some would entertain voting for Smith, many others expressed the opposite sentiment, in sometimes colorful language.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will Smith in 'Emancipation': Could he win another Oscar, despite ban?