‘Emancipation’: Will Smith slap left director ‘worried’ for its fate

Antoine Fuqua thought the worst was behind him.

Earlier this year, the director of films like Training Day and The Equalizer had just wrapped up his most ambitious film yet, historical action thriller Emancipation. The story of an enslaved man named Peter (Will Smith) who makes a perilous escape through the Louisiana swamp to find freedom and be reunited with his wife and children after Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the film had a lasting impact on the filmmaker takes a significant physical and emotional toll.

“I still have PTSD from the swamps,” Fuqua told The Times earlier this month via Zoom from Italy, where he’s filming The Equalizer 3. “We had COVID, we had a hurricane, we had a tornado – it was incredible. I spoke to Martin Scorsese and he said, ‘Antoine, we must have amnesia. We keep coming back to the pain.’”

Then, on the evening of March 27, Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock in the face in front of a stunned crowd of millions at the Academy Awards over a joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith — before winning the leading actor award for “King Richard” less than an hour later .

Suddenly, Fuqua, who was in post-production on Emancipation, was faced with a whole new kind of pain.

After the slap that damaged Smith’s megawatt public image, questions swirled about the fate of “Emancipation,” amid reports that Apple Original Films, which is said to have spent $120 million to produce the film , considered delaying its release in an attempt to buffer it from the controversy. Ultimately, Apple decided to go ahead and will show the film in select theaters on December 2 before streaming it on Apple TV+ a week later – right in the heart of Oscar season.

For the past few weeks, Emancipation has been screened in Washington, DC in conjunction with the annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation conference and at a private gathering in LA to generate buzz and change the narrative around the film, hosted by Smith and attended by several high profile black entertainment figures including Tyler Perry, Dave Chappelle, Rihanna and Kenya Barris.

The film’s supporters hope that “Emancipation” can stand on its own artistic merit and the importance of its subject matter. Written by Bill Collage, the film is based on the true story of a man named “Whipped Peter” whose scarred back, captured in an 1863 photograph, became one of the most enduring and evocative images of the horrors of slavery.

With memories of Smith’s violent, obscene Oscar-night meltdown still fresh, however, it remains to be seen how “Emancipation,” which stars Ben Foster as a racist bounty hunter on Peter’s trail, will fare in the heating-up awards season. Although Smith has resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has been banned from attending all Academy events for the next 10 years, he could still be nominated to star in the film should Emancipation receive a Best Picture nomination. as one of its manufacturers.

The Times spoke to Fuqua about the importance of continuing to engage with the history of slavery, the challenges of filming a major Hollywood production in an alligator-infested swampland, and the aftermath of the slap “on the… whole world” can be heard.

A degraded man escaping slavery walks in a swamp.

Will Smith in Emancipation.

(Quantrell Colbert / Apple)

When this project first came to you, what attracted you to the script? Have you ever thought about picking up this chapter of history?

Not really. There are stories about slavery that have interested me, but I’ve never had that North Star, that heartbeat that really made me want to do it. Because I knew it was going to be painful. For me, if I can find a story that everyone – black, white, whatever – can relate to, then it’s worth telling.

When I first read the script, I wrote Sacred Motivation over it because I knew it was going to be a total challenge for me. The topic alone has been a difficult thing every day to deal with something that you as a human being are directly related to.

The love story was really important. And Peter was an inspirational character – the fact that a man went through hell in 1863 still inspires us today to tell stories about him and his journey. The film is about family. It’s about belief. It’s about an inspiring, selfless person. That’s what I held on to from the ugliness of it all.

Making a film that deals with the history of slavery is a great responsibility. How have you dealt with the enormity of this, particularly as a black filmmaker?

Once I commit, I just focus on the task. But I knew every day that I would deal with it.

I remember the first day Will tried the collar on; it stuck and you could see in his eyes what was happening. The idea of ​​it, even for a few seconds, is almost unbearable for us. I got in the car and put the chains on just to see. It’s like another world. I remember saying it [my director of photography] Bob Richardson: “I want it to feel like it’s almost like it’s on another planet.” And yet it’s so real in our story.

The more I researched, the uglier it got. I have my own personal story; I had a family member who was executed for “staring” at a white woman in Florida, just looking at her. The further down the family tree you go, the harder it gets. I’m on my own journey to learn more about it and understand it better.

Smith said in an interview last year that he refused to make a film about slavery earlier in his career because he said he “didn’t want to show black people in that light.” How were your conversations with him about where Emancipation compares to previous television series or films that have explored slavery, be it Roots or 12 Years a Slave?

Will was responding to the love story and the inspirational part of it. Telling this kind of story about this man who continues to inspire us to this day cannot be about revenge and it cannot be about blaming anyone. It’s about just trying to find the truth in what happened. We talked a lot about that.

I grew up with “Roots” and that had a big impact on me personally. 12 Years a Slave is an amazing film. But I wanted to make a film that felt darker and more brutal in the reality of what slavery is. I wanted to show forced labor, that’s what it was all about.

But I also wanted to show a character who doesn’t play fear. I didn’t want him to look weak or shuffle around with his head down. This picture of him in Scourged Back [photograph], he looks very proud and strong. You know, in a lot of other films [about slavery], other people saved the day. Brad Pitt saved Chiwetel in 12 Years a Slave [Ejiofor]. I felt like this character had to save himself.

They shot most of this film in the dense swamps of Louisiana, which not only seems logistically nightmarish, but also dangerous. How was it to set up a large film production under such conditions?

It was the hardest film I’ve ever made. I mean we were in. There was no comfort for the creature down there. bugs everywhere. Wolf spiders as big as your hand. alligators. lightning strikes. The weather was over 100 degrees. We had to close because people were passing out from the heat. We were fully committed – or just crazy. But one way or another we moved on.

When filming started, Will had to run down the hill and into the swamp. I thought I had to do a face replacement. And he said, “Man, that’s what I do.” And he did it. I knew then that I had a partner who was fully involved.

Smith’s actions at the Oscars have hung over this film ever since, leaving it with a baggage that’s obviously out of your control. Over the summer, there were reports that Apple was considering delaying the film’s release until next year due to the controversy. How were these discussions?

Honestly, Apple has always been great. They’ve been great partners from the start. I understood what was happening. People were concerned; It’s about a lot of money, how people around the world felt at that moment. But there was always a positive conversation. It was never negative. It was always, “We’ll find out.”

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 play it.

Of course, as a filmmaker, I was concerned because so many people put their hearts and souls into this film. We had people in the film who were homeless after the hurricane. It was hard. I like it when people are recognized for their work in one way or another and I thought it would be a shame if anyone never saw that. And I feel like the issue is bigger than this event.

[Pauses.] Will’s an amazing person man. Honestly, I’ve never met anyone like Will. Every day on set was positive. He was in as difficult a situation as one can be in this environment and he didn’t complain once. He would just say to me, “I’m at your service.” He cared about people. We had to stop him from saying hello to everyone and shaking hands with everyone because of COVID. He’s just a great person. And I know Chris Rock and he’s a great person too. I only pray for the best for everyone.

There’s no question that if the slap hadn’t happened, there would have been a different kind of Oscar talk around this film. How concerned are you that price voters will penalize the film because of their feelings about what Smith did?

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 I focus on that.

This film comes at a time of incredible polarization around racial issues, fierce debate over how American history is taught in schools, and fears of rising white nationalism. How do you hope this film hits the zeitgeist right now?

The reason I wanted to make the film was to remind young people how brutal people are towards each other out of greed and ignorance. We see more of this brutality in Europe and other parts of the world today. It doesn’t seem like we remember our past. That’s a big responsibility.

I’m hoping to strike a chord for people to seek some truth about what slavery really was and have the conversation to try to initiate some sort of healing process. To even start a real conversation, you have to start with the truth – the brutality of the truth. We have to start somewhere.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-11-17/emancipation-apple-antoine-fuqua-will-smith ‘Emancipation’: Will Smith slap left director ‘worried’ for its fate

Sarah Ridley

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