Why Release Will Smith’s ‘Emancipation’ Now? ‘400 Years of Slavery Is Bigger’ Than the Oscars Slap, Says Director

When Apple announced in October that it would be releasing “Emancipation” in theaters by the end of the year, many moviegoers were left scratching their heads: How can any studio release a Will Smith vehicle in the same year he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars? For “Emancipation” director Antoine Fuqua, there was never any issue about the slavery drama’s release date.

“The film to me is bigger than that moment,” Fuqua told Vanity Fair. “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.”

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“Emancipation” is based on a true story and stars Smith as a runaway slave named Peter, known better to the world as “Whipped Peter” after photographs of keloid scarring on his back were distributed to show the brutality of slavery. The film follows Peter as he navigates the swamps of Louisiana to escape the plantation owners that nearly killed him.

According to Fuqua, committing to release the movie in 2022 was “a full conversation with Apple” but “there was never a conversation with me and Apple or my producers about the movie not coming out.”

“Of course I wanted people to see the film,” Fuqua said. “My conversation was always, ‘Isn’t 400 years of slavery, of brutality, more important than one bad moment?’ We were in Hollywood, and there’s been some really ugly things that have taken place, and we’ve seen a lot of people get awards that have done some really nasty things. So I think Apple considered all those things, and we discussed a lot of those things. Then a decision was made by the people in charge of distribution and the money at Apple — and I’m grateful, I’m really grateful.”

Fuqua said that Smith “was kind to everyone on set,” which is why it was so shocking to watch the Oscars and see the actor slap Chris Rock across the face.

“Will would go around and hug and shake hands — we had 300-something extras and military,” Fuqua said. “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.”

While Fuqua did not want to make excuses for Smith’s behavior at the Oscars, he did remind people that Smith was coming off the brutal “Emancipation” film shoot at the time, which surely took its toll emotionally on the actor.

“The movie was supposed to end in October, but we didn’t finish that movie until January because of a hurricane, the heat, COVID, a tornado and 12 other things,” Fuqua said. “It was just crazy, really. 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. That, I know. So no excuses for anyone or anything, but I can say that he’s a good man and I hope that people can forgive him and that we can move forward.”

Fuqua concluded, “I hope Chris and Will find a way to sit together publicly, privately, whatever, and make amends. I think it would be an incredible statement.”

“Emancipation” premieres in theaters on Dec. 2 and will stream on Apple TV+ starting Dec. 9.

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