‘Emancipation’: Inside Will Smith’s Unsparing New Slave Drama

At times, I found watching emancipation so painful that it was almost unbearable. its director, Antoine Fuqua, knew this and—to his great credit, I think—talked to me openly and at length for this group of Q&As about his film. Will Smitha producer as well as the star, answered questions separately by email, and his costars Ben Foster other Charmaine Bingwa spoke to me as well. All of which is to say that—although the Apple Original Film was a late entry into the calendar after a now legendary difficult year for Smith—the team is very much united behind it. In the movie, Smith plays Peter, a man who escapes the shackles of slavery through the treacherous swamps of Louisiana. It’s inspired by the frankly inconceivable trials and tribulations of an escaped slave best known to history as “Whipped Peter.”

You’ve seen the photo of Whipped Peter, which is enshrined in history books. Peter sits with his decimated back facing the camera, covered in keloid scars, ravaged by lashings. The photograph shows the physical manifestation of the atrocities of slavery, the inhumanity that man can inflict on man. It’s so powerful that it became one of the most widely circulated images of slavery of the 1800s and beyond, shaping public opinion by depicting the horrors of the institution in a single image. The photo demands your attention, even if you can hardly stand to look at it.

Courtesy of Apple.

It’s fitting, then, that emancipation is unflinching as we travel with Peter on his Odyssean journey toward freedom and to family. Fuqua and Smith see to it that we bear witness to Peter’s unimaginable hardship—first at the hands of his overseer Fassel, played by Foster, and then as a soldier defending the very country that enslaved him—all in an effort to return to his wife , Dodienne, played by Bingwa in her film debut, and their children. Even Robert Richardson‘s cinematography evokes the photograph that inspired the movie.

Not much is known about Peter beyond the indelible photograph, but Fuqua worked with historians Erica Armstrong Dunbar to imagine his escape from slavery and eventual enlistment in the Union Army. Fuqua is the director who guided Denzel Washington to his only best-actor Oscar statuette, as LAPD narcotics operative Alonzo Harris in the director’s 2001 film Training Day. In his acceptance speech, Washington called Fuqua “a brilliant young…African American filmmaker.” Since then, the director has made Southpaw, The Magnificent Sevenand The Equalizer franchise. Now, over 20 years after helping Washington become only the second Black actor to win an Oscar for best actor, Fuqua has set his sights on telling a story about our history, in part, because he believes we are in danger of forgetting it.

“Some young kids were born, the first president they saw was barack obama,” he tells me over zoom. “If we start our history there that means we forget all the past. We forget about Martin Luther King. We forget about Malcolm X. We forget about all our great leaders in the past. Do we forget about Nelson Mandela? We’ve got to go back and we have to have discussions about the past, so that we can move forward, and so we can start healing.”

Healing, of course, is not always a linear journey. Smith knows this firsthand, having spent much of the past year reckoning with the fallout from his outburst at the Oscars. He declined to answer a question about that episode and its effect on the effect on the movie, but Fuqua talked about it frankly, saying, in part, “The film to me is bigger than that moment. Four hundred years of slavery is bigger than one moment. My hope is that people will see it that way and watch the movie and be swept away with the great performance by Will and all the real hard work that the whole crew did.”

emancipation hits theaters on December 2 and streams on Apple TV+ the following week. Ahead, interviews with the filmmaker and his cast.

Director Antoine Fuqua

Vanity Fair: Since the deaths of George Floyd other Eric Garnerand the Black Lives Matter movement, there have been a lot of conversations about how to depict—and whether we should depict—trauma and violence against Black people, specifically Black men, onscreen. Many people believe we should shy away from it. yet, with emancipation, you’ve gone in the opposite direction. Why did you depict brutality perpetrated against Black men?

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