After the Slap, can Will Smith’s ‘Emancipation’ get Oscar love?

When Will Smith took the stage at Westwood’s Village Theater on Wednesday night to introduce his new slavery thriller, Emancipation, the nearly full house cheered and pulled out their phones to capture the moment. The actor had just walked the red carpet at the premiere showing his thousand-megawatt smile to photographers alongside his wife Jada Pinkett Smith and their three children Trey, Jaden and Willow.

“So far so good,” Smith responded to a question about how it felt to be back in the spotlight eight months after meeting host Chris Rock on stage at the Dolby Theater at the Oscars.

In other words, the premiere of “Emancipation,” which opens in select theaters on Friday before arriving on Apple TV+ on December 9, seemed to be going largely as usual. Smith, the film’s star and producer, hit his mark to praise the story of an enslaved man who escaped after Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to be reunited with his wife and children. At the premiere of the film, the friendly audience usually cheered on cue.

Beneath the surface, however, Emancipation’s introduction has strayed well outside of the standard awards-season playbook, as the film’s backers cautiously seek to divert the narrative from Smith’s shocking, obscene Oscar-night meltdown. Now, like the film’s battered but determined hero, Emancipation will embark on a perilous journey of its own as Apple Original Films embarks on an awards campaign, amid ongoing mixed feelings within the industry over Smith’s actions and the film academy’s reaction.

The importance of the film’s subject matter is undeniable; Emancipation is based on the true story of a man named Whipped Peter, whose scarred back became one of the most enduring images of the horrors of slavery. In 2014, searing drama 12 Years a Slave received nine Oscar nominations and won Best Picture.

However, it could be an uphill battle for the team behind “Emancipation” to win such favor with Oscar voters, who watched in dismay as Smith ruined their biggest night.

“In normal times it would be difficult to sell a film – because any adult drama is difficult to sell to audiences right now,” said a veteran price adviser anonymously. . “But you add what Will Smith did at the Oscars… that was embarrassing for everyone. And people in this town don’t like to be ashamed.”

Smith beats Chris Rock on stage during the 94th Academy Awards in March

Smith beats Chris Rock on stage during the 94th Academy Awards in March

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

As Emancipation lands in the middle of Oscar season, the stakes are both for Apple — which reportedly spent $120 million producing the film and is a Best Picture winner for its feel-good drama CODA — and for Apple at stake for Smith, who won the leading actor award for “King Richard” less than an hour after meeting Rock.

As punishment for his actions, Smith was banned from attending all Academy events for the next 10 years. But while he’s no longer a member of the organization, he can still be nominated by the Oscar voters for both the lead actor and one of the film’s producers should Emancipation win a Best Picture award.

Immediately after the slap, the fate of “Emancipation,” which was in post-production, seemed uncertain. Reports surfaced that Apple was considering delaying the film’s release to protect it from the firestorm.

“People were concerned; It’s about a lot of money how people around the world felt that moment,” the film’s director Antoine Fuqua told The Times last month. “I had to be very patient and understand that there is obviously a big company behind all this and there are a lot of feelings behind what happened. I had to let it happen.”

Ultimately, Apple decided to proceed with the planned awards season release and formulate a carefully orchestrated plan to build support for the film among key trendsetters in the black community.

In recent months, “Emancipation” has had well-received screenings in Washington, DC in conjunction with the annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation conference and at a private gathering in LA hosted by Smith and attended by several high-profile black entertainment figures, including Tyler , attended by Perry, Dave Chappelle, Rihanna and Kenya Barris. Smith even paid the Los Angeles Lakers a visit to promote the film and received a recommendation from the team on social media.

Smith in a scene from "Emancipation."

Smith in a scene from Emancipation.


Meanwhile, Smith – whose initial apology for the incident was widely criticized as inadequate – has been attempting to redeem his own public image. In a recent interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, the star expressed concerns that viewers and voters might punish the team behind Emancipation for their actions.

“I hope her work is honored and not spoiled because of a terrible decision on my part,” he said.

One obstacle to success on the awards front might be the decidedly mixed reviews for the film, which plummeted just before the end of the “Emancipation” premiere.

Emancipation currently has a score of 59 on review aggregator Metacritic, a low number for an Oscar-winning film. Times film critic Justin Chang praised Smith’s acting, calling it “solid, slightly likable, at times stirring” but wrote that “Fuqua’s filmmaking instincts are clumsy and prone to clichés”. Especially during the premiere, big action moments that were supposed to stir up only a few scraps of applause from the audience.

In interviews with a dozen Oscar voters, most seemed inclined to give the film a shot, although the majority said they would wait until it lands on the Academy’s streaming platform.

“I think you’d have to be pretty narrow-minded to remember what happened at the Oscars and that’s preventing you from watching the film,” said one member, who spoke confidentially per film academy guidelines when it came to Voting matters went. “Besides Will Smith, a lot of people worked on ‘Emancipation.’ You deserve attention.”

Smith may also deserve attention. Even the film’s mediocre reviews hailed Smith for an outstanding performance that, in its physicality and the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that pours from his character, could be compared to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-winning work in the 2015 adventure drama . The revenant.”

However, voters are silently voicing concerns about giving the actor the honor of a nomination.

“Too soon,” said one actor. “I don’t care if he wrestled a real alligator in that swamp. It’s just too early.”

“I hold no grudges,” offered another. “But to honor someone who has just been banned from academy events for 10 years would be an odd message.”

Others, like TV writer Kirk A. Moore, say the Academy itself has sent mixed messages in the past, citing the Oscar director Roman Polanski won for the 2002 drama The Pianist after leaving the United States fled before being convicted in a trial in which he pleaded guilty to having illegal sex with a minor.

“I hate that Will Smith has to go on this apology tour for hypocrites who probably won’t see ‘Emancipation’ anyway out of spite.” Moore wrote on Twitter.

Speaking to The Times, Fuqua — whose 2001 crime drama Training Day helped Denzel Washington win an Oscar for leading actor and co-star Ethan Hawke a nod for supporting actor — shared his own hope that viewers and voters alike of the awards will put aside their expectations of feelings towards Smith and receive the film on its own terms.

“So many people worked on this film and gave their hearts and souls,” said the director, who endured a grueling shoot that included a hurricane, a tornado and the everyday agony of shooting in a Louisiana swamp. “I feel like the issue is bigger than this event.”

He adds resignedly: “I just take everything as it comes, stick to the task, stick to the work and the art. That’s all I can control, so that’s what I’m focusing on.” After the Slap, can Will Smith’s ‘Emancipation’ get Oscar love?

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