It was supposed to be a harrowing film about a slave’s escape through the Louisiana swamps, but ahead of its release, 'Emancipation' has been slapped with an unexpected label: Will Smith’s first film since his Oscar slap.
It's something that has director Antoine Fuqua worried.
Hollywood professionals were betting on a postponement because of the scandal, but Apple, which produced the film, has decided to release it this weekend in US cinemas, despite fears of a possible public boycott.
“I’m very worried about it,” Fuqua told French news agency AFP, hoping the message of his film will not be swallowed up by the smell of brimstone surrounding its lead actor.
“I hope we have enough compassion (…) to at least go and see the work he has done, because his work in the film is extraordinary,” the director added.
'He's been a good man for 37 years'
Before he shocked the world by slapping comedian Chris Rock on the Oscar stage for a questionable joke about his wife’s hair loss, Will Smith had been conquering Hollywood since the 1990s. He has been "a good man, in front of us all, for 37 years,” the filmmaker recalls.
'Emancipation' is based on the story of 'Whipped Peter,' a black slave who became famous for the barbaric treatment he received from his masters before he escaped from a cotton plantation during the American Civil War.
Photographs of his back, completely lacerated by whippings, have gone down in history as indelible evidence of the brutality of slavery.
Lays bare the brutality of slavery
Will Smith plays this character escaping from the clutches of cruel masters, and whose escape Antoine Fuqua imagines through the sticky swamps of Louisiana, filled with alligators, snakes and other dangers.
The director films this quest for freedom in the manner of a suspense thriller, rather than a historical drama, and shows the abuses inflicted on the slaves in all their cruelty.
The brutal scenes of violence are reminiscent of the multi-award-winning film '12 Years a Slave.'
Possible Oscar nomination?
Will Smith’s performance is undeniable, but many critics wonder if the actor’s return to the screen is premature, barely eight months after his slap.
Banned from the Oscars for 10 years, after resigning from the Academy himself, the former 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air' can still theoretically be nominated and win a statuette.
The release of 'Emancipation' in December gives Apple the opportunity to nominate his film for an Oscar.
He was wrong to lose his temper
Will Smith, who has publicly apologised, “was wrong” to lose his temper at the last Oscars, Fuqua insists, hoping that he will reconcile with Chris Rock away from the spotlight. But “Will is a good guy, I support him,” the director adds.
During the difficult shoot in the Louisiana swamp, the actor “never complained,” he stresses. The filmmaker insists on the imperative need to release 'Emancipation,' at a time when the age-old questions around slavery are causing multiple tensions in the United States.
“There are discussions about not teaching slavery in some schools (…), as if they wanted to erase the past,” Fuqua said.
Republican opposition to reforms to the teaching of history
The Republican Party has strongly opposed reforms that would change the way slavery is taught and address systemic racism. American children should not be “taught that our country is inherently evil,” conservative Senate leader Mitch McConnell and other lawmakers argued last year.
Fuqua draws parallels between such resistance and the images of Whipped Peter that were necessary to silence the voices that tried to minimise the horrors committed in the name of slavery in the late 19th century.
“That’s why it’s so important to keep the museums open, to keep all these things alive,” he says. “Many children don’t even know what slavery is.