Director Antoine Fuqua juggles the return of Will Smith and the politics of slavery in ‘Emancipation’

(From left) Jamie Erlicht, Apple co-head of programming, American actor Will Smith, American director Antoine Fuqua and Apple co-head of programming Zack Van Amburg pose upon arrival for the European premiere of ‘Emancipation’ at Vue West End from London on December 2, 2022.

LOS ANGELES, United States — Directing “Emancipation,” a brutal and harrowing film about slavery set deep in the alligator-infested swamps of Louisiana, was always going to be a challenge for Antoine Fuqua — and then its star Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars .

Despite reports that Apple may delay the release until the heated controversy surrounding Smith’s actions dies down, the film opens in theaters this weekend and will be released globally next Friday, sparking fears that audiences and Oscar voters could boycott him.

“Absolutely, I have great concerns about it,” Fuqua told AFP.

But “Will was a good guy, in front of all of us, for 37 years,” he said of Smith, who rose to fame in the 1990s.

“I hope we have more compassion in our hearts, to at least go see the work he’s done — because he’s done an amazing job in the movie. They all did.”

“Emancipation” is inspired by the story of a black man who defied enormous odds to escape slavery during the United States Civil War.

“Whipped Peter” became a global symbol of the horrors of slavery after photos of his bare back – completely mutilated by the beatings he received on a cotton plantation – circulated around the world.

Less is known about the real man, whom Smith portrays as running from sadistic slavers and dodging alligators, snakes and other dangers in the swamps of the Deep South in search of freedom for himself and his family.

More of an escape thriller than a grim historical drama, “Emancipation” is as explicit in showing the savagery inflicted on the enslaved as recent films like “12 Years a Slave.”

The film was shot on location in real Louisiana swamps, in what Smith, at Wednesday’s world premiere in Los Angeles, called “an absolute monster of a difficult film to make.”

But while Smith’s performance has drawn praise, critics have wondered if it’s too soon for a comeback, just eight months after the famous Oscars night.

Smith resigned from the Academy for punching Rock on stage over a joke about his wife’s hair loss. He was banned from the Oscars for a decade, although he can still win Oscars.

An image rehabilitation campaign included an online apology and a late-night TV appearance in which Smith told host Trevor Noah that he was “going through something that night” and “just lost it.”

Regarding the “slap thing,” Fuqua is unequivocal that “it was wrong.”

But the ‘Training Day’ director added: ‘Will is a good guy. I’m standing behind him.

“I was with him for a few years, man, I was with him in the swamps. The guy never complained.”


For Fuqua, part of the urgency of releasing the film now is a political climate in the US where the legacy of slavery has become a heated, polarized issue.

“You hear about things in America, especially where there’s talk of not teaching about slavery in some schools … like they want to erase the past,” he said.

Republicans have criticized proposed education reforms that would address systemic racism and the legacy of American slavery in schools.

Mitch McConnell and other conservative senators wrote last year that children should not be “taught that our country is inherently bad.”

But Fuqua said there were “frightening” parallels to the “Whipped Peter” photos, which were needed to finally confront many who tried to downplay the brutality of slavery as early as 1863.

“That’s why it’s important to keep the museums going, to keep all these things alive,” he said.

“A lot of kids don’t even know about slavery.”

Whether the film’s message gets lost in the chatter surrounding Smith and Rock remains to be seen.

But Fuqua remains confident that the two men will be able to reach a respectful reconciliation of their own.

“I hope they can come together, not in front of the cameras, and shake hands and have forgiveness and move on with their lives,” he said.

“I’m keeping my focus on film,” Fuqua said. /Inquiry

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