Smith plays “Whipped Peter,” a slave with a scarred back who escapes the swamps of Louisiana and eventually joins the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. The film is based on a true story and was inspired by a photograph of the scars that the real-life slave acquired after being brutally assaulted on a plantation. “Emancipation” will be released theatrically December 2 before streaming on Apple TV+ December 9.
Director Antoine Fuqua revealed that during the Louisiana-set shoot, Smith made a point of introducing himself to more than 300 extras on set, and even gave money to those playing corpses in the heat.
“He was kind to everyone on the set. Will would go around and hug and shake hands — we had 300-something extras and military, Marines. We had to stop Will from doing that because of COVID,” Fuqua told Vanity Fair. “He’s funny. He’s fun. We had certain extras that were the dead bodies in the graves, and he would go give them money for laying there in that heat over 100 degrees.”
Fuqua declined to comment on Will Smith’s incident at the Oscars, adding of filming, “I saw a different person than that one moment in time, and so my reaction was that particular moment is very foreign to me when it comes to Will Smith. I have nothing but amazing things to say about Will Smith, really genuinely. You can ask anybody that worked on the movie, they’ll tell you the same. Nicest person I’ve ever met in my life.”
The “Training Day” director noted that “as a filmmaker, I wasn’t out looking for a slave movie; I never saw ‘Emancipation’ as a slave movie.” Instead, the film is rooted in “sacred motivation” and the pursuit of freedom in both physical and spiritual senses.
“It was a story about triumph,” Fuqua said.
As for Smith’s performance, Fuqua added, “It’s really hard to release a character who’s been brutalized and called the N-word every day — constantly, every day — and still be the nicest person in the world.”
Smith admitted that it was a “grueling” process to embody the role of Pete.
“Not just for me, but for every single person working on the film,” Smith said. “We had therapists and spiritual teachers on set. We had a pastor. The daily reminder of the merciless treatment of a race of people was punishing to our spirits. And yet, I don’t think I would want to ‘shake off’Peter. The concept that Peter illuminated for me is that heaven and hell are states of consciousness. For me to have the opportunity to walk in Peter’s trial, and try to understand and dissect what is going on in the heart and mind of a man who has endured what he has endured — and survived — is a gift. It is a source of new inspiration and has helped me to cultivate a higher capacity for empathy.”
“Emancipation” marks Smith’s first onscreen performance since the infamous Oscars slap where the Best Actor winner attacked presenter Chris Rock. While Smith is banned from attending the Academy Awards for 10 years, critics have already speculated that “Emancipation” could be an awards season player.