Will Smith and ‘Emancipation’ Director Defend Releasing the Slave Film Now

Dave J Hogan/Getty Images
Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

One of the biggest wild cards of this year’s awards season is Emancipation, the biographical slavery epic starring Will Smith. It’s also the contender with the most baggage, thanks to its star and controversial subject material.

The AppleTV+ film, in select theaters now and streaming on Dec. 9, comes only nine months after the Academy Awards where Smith infamously slapped presenter Chris Rock onstage, after the comedian made a joke about his wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith. The timing of the film, in relation to the Oscars slap, has raised some eyebrows. Additionally, folks on social media have expressed fatigue about the film, given the prevalence of slave narratives in Hollywood and the question of whether these portrayals are exploitative.

At a press conference for Emancipation on Saturday, the movie’s director Antoine Fuqua explained why he felt the need to depict this gruesome period on film.

“Today, it feels like we’re forgetting our past, which is dangerous,” the director said, sitting beside Smith. “They’re kind of putting us to sleep with a lot of cash and diamonds. Some people were born when Barack Obama was president.

“Right,” Smith agreed.

“…As if nothing before Barack Obama existed, which is what they want you to believe,” he continued. “So I felt like it was time. And as I watched George Floyd die in the street, I was even more fueled. It’s important to tell these stories now.”

Emancipation is based on the true story of an enslaved man named Gordon (also known as “Whipping Peter”), who escapes his plantation in Louisiana in the 1860s. Gordon’s story became a lightning rod in the abolitionist movement after photographs of his back, scourged from several whippings, were circulated. Fuqua said he felt particularly enthusiastic about Smith portraying Gordon (called Peter in the film).

“I just felt passionate about seeing Will do this,” the Training Day director explained. “Part of that is, in 1863, the concept of someone like Will, who’s so loved, would have been a slave. And we did some tests and saw some images early on with Will and his team. And I saw the image as we developed Peter. It broke my heart.”

Will Smith’s ‘Emancipation’ Doesn’t Make Up for the Oscar Slap

Smith briefly discussed the mental and physical toll of embodying Gordon and depicting “that level of human atrocity.” However, the rest of the press conference, held for members of the Critics Choice Association, did not address the glaring controversy surrounding the actor’s role in the film and potential Oscars campaign, despite a decade-long ban from attending the ceremony.

Smith may have gotten that part of the Emancipation press tour out of the way when he went on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah last week for his first television appearance since the Oscars incident. He solemnly explained to Noah that he was “going through something that night,” although it didn’t “justify [his] behavior.” He claimed that his actions towards Rock were “not who [he] wants to be.”

The King Richard actor also recently appeared on Showtime’s All The Smoke, hosted by Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, where he tearfully discussed having to explain the incident to his nephew before moving onto a host of other subjects.

Despite Smith issuing multiple mea culpas, the jury is still out on whether awards voters and the moviegoing public are ready to forgive the beloved actor for his recent misdeeds or if telling this type of politically urgent story will absolve him.

So far, Emancipation has received mixed to negative reviews, with critics primarily highlighting Ben Foster’s supporting performance as the central slave master. Whether that love extends to Smith or the movie itself during awards season next year is anyone’s guess.

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