There’s a teeny bit of irony in Will Smith starring in a movie titled Emancipation in 2022. This is, after all, just eight months after…well, you know––an event so seismic it will remain one of the most talked-about events in the history of pop culture. The aftermath of Smith’s televised lowest moment required throwing out the rules of the PR handbook too: while it was reported that Apple initially was going to push the release of the film to 2023, they reversed that decision, in part because Emancipation, the story of a man’s escape from slavery to fight for the Union Army, had already shot and, once you see it, you’ll agree that it deserves to be seen.
But for Smith, who delivers a stunning, best-ever performance in the Antoine Fuqua-directed epic, releasing Emancipation meant promoting it, and promoting it meant coming out of the self-induced isolation he’d been in since that terrible day in March. Of course, facing the public again means facing what is sure to be the most intense scrutiny and criticism he’s ever faced, and that required some serious ego death––emancipation of sorts if you will.
“You know, there's been a certain amount of emotional emancipation that I've been forced to discover within myself and in my faith in these last few months,” Smith tells BET.com on a Zoom in early November. As you might imagine, journalists were instructed not to talk about anything other than the movie, but in talking about the internal work he’s been doing the past few months, Smith drew a parallel between his recent emotional journey and the man's journey he portrays on screen. “His body was enslaved, but his mind was emancipated. His mind was free in his trust, faith, and surrender to God. There was a certain inner emancipation that Peter had, and that was a big part of what I wanted to study. I would say Peter has been a great friend in my heart these last few months.”
The Peter that Smith refers to is “Whipped Peter,” the real-life man whose story loosely inspires Emancipation. Peter, enshrined in history thanks to the infamous, horrific photograph of his mutilated back, sojourned 10 days to make it to freedom, running barefoot through creeks and fields to make it to a Union camp in Baton Rouge, where he promptly enlisted in the Union army. The photograph of Peter helped galvanize more opposition to slavery among white Northerners.
Calling Emancipation incredible doesn’t do it justice: it’s a cinematic achievement, a 132-minute spectacle sure to sit alongside classics like Glory, with Smith performing extraordinary feats that rival some of the most ambitious physical work ever captured on film. (One scene has him in combat with a wild animal in a way that rivals Leonardo DiCaprio’s tussle with a bear in The Revenant.) Large swaths of the film are entirely silent––a testament to Smith’s ability to convey emotion and tell the story with his face and body. Of course, the nature of the film means that a lot of it is brutal to watch––beatings, torture, whippings, and other hallmarks of the slavery-movie genre––and Smith is well aware that many Black moviegoers have become exhausted with such stories.
“I've avoided slavery my entire career,” he says. “It was like, I didn't want to depict us in that way. Antoine has put this thing together so brilliantly that you experience the brutality…but you get to the end of this film and feel the power of the spirits of our ancestors.”
As exceptional as Smith is in it, Emancipation is gripping because of the direction too. Presented in a stark, kind of bleached patina, Emancipation is shot in a sort of primarily black-and-white format, with what seems like occasional glimpses of washed-out color peeking through. It’s slightly confusing but hypnotic––an unconventional but inspired and bold choice from Fuqua that heightens the intensity of the film. The idea, the filmmaker says, was to drain the color out of the Confederacy. In that context, we are reminded of the power and control these Black creatives are exerting in telling this narrative––how far Black people have come and the debts owed to us as rightful inheritors of every freedom and right guaranteed to every American. “We can't forget the brutality of our past,” Fuqua says, adding that, especially for young people who grew up seeing a Black president and now, a whitewashing of history, it’s important they know what really happened. “We have a big responsibility,” he says.
For both of them, Emancipation is less a “slavery movie” as it is a story of inspiration and courage. “It’s a long road with a whole lot of very strong African American humans [that brought us] to this position today,” Smith adds. “Even in the heart of that degradation can we find our faith and our spirit, our gratitude, and even pride.”
Emancipation premieres in theaters on Dec. 2 and will stream on Apple TV+ starting Dec. 9.