Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto via Getty Will Smith
Will Smith is making his return to the movies.
The Oscar-winning actor appeared at a screening for his upcoming Antoine Fuqua-directed film, Emancipation, which marks his first film since his incident at the 94th Academy Awards where he slapped Chris Rock in front of a live audience.
"Emancipation tells the triumphant story of Peter (Smith), a man who escapes from slavery, relying on his wits, unwavering faith and deep love for his family to evade cold-blooded hunters and the unforgiving swamps of Louisiana on his quest for freedom," an official synopsis reads. "The film is inspired by the 1863 photos of 'Whipped Peter,' taken during a Union Army medical examination, that first appeared in Harper's Weekly. One image, known as 'The Scourged Back,' which shows Peter's bare back mutilated by a whipping delivered by his enslavers, ultimately contributed to growing public opposition to slavery."
Over the weekend, Apple hosted a screening for the film alongside the NAACP during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 51st Annual Legislative Conference, as Angela Rye moderated a discussion with Smith, Fuqua, and Mary Elliott, curator of American Slavery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
At a special screening of the film #Emancipation, with director @AntoineFuqua and producer and star Will Smith. This is the first time Will has seen the film with an audience. @appletv @appletvplus pic.twitter.com/RMDGvYIEky
— April is in DC (@ReignOfApril) October 1, 2022
"Throughout my career, I've turned down many films that were set in slavery," Smith said at the screening, per The Hollywood Reporter. "I never wanted to show us like that. And then this picture came along. And this is not a film about slavery. This is a film about freedom. This is a film about resilience. This is a film about faith. This is a film about the heart of a man — what could be called the first viral image. Cameras had just been created, and the image of whipped Peter went around the world."
Smith then called the photo a "rallying cry against slavery," and one that inspired a film that he says he wanted to be part of in "a way that only Antoine Fuqua could deliver." Fuqua has had a wide-ranging career, from directing Training Day to helming the late Coolio's video for "Gangsta's Paradise."
Viewers at the screening shared their praise for the film on Twitter.
I had the pleasure of watching the film #Emancipation and 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.
Thank you Antoine Fuqua and Will Smith for sharing your gifts!#ThisIsPower
— Derrick Johnson (@DerrickNAACP) October 1, 2022
"I had the pleasure of watching the film #Emancipation and can't begin to tell how powerful this is for OUR community and OUR history," NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson wrote on Twitter. "It's a story of adversity, of resilience, of love, and of triumph. Thank you Antoine Fuqua and Will Smith for sharing your gifts!"
On Twitter, Tonya J. Williams called the movie a "powerful & gut-wrenching depiction of the horrors of slavery in America," commending Smith on his performance.
"[Smith] who masterfully played the role Peter, spoke about how he (and we) hold space in this world using Peter's life as the example," Williams wrote. "Release this film!"
Smith has kept a relatively low profile since the Oscars in March, when he slapped Rock over a joke the comedian made about his wife Jada — who lives with alopecia — and her shaved head.
Robyn Beck/getty Chris Rock and Will Smith
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After he slapped Rock, and won Best Actor not too soon after, Smith resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and was eventually banned from attending Academy events for a decade. He has since apologized multiple times for his actions.
"About Oscar night. My deepest hope is that these two intelligent, capable men have an opportunity to heal, talk this out and reconcile," Jada said about her husband and Rock on an episode of Red Table Talk. "With the state of the world today, we need 'em both, and we all actually need one another more than ever. Until then, Will and I are continuing to do what we have done for the last 28 years — and that's [to] keep figuring out this thing called life together."