Will Smith’s Oscar slap will overshadow the slavery movie ‘Emancipation’?

It was meant to be a poignant film about a slave’s escape through the Louisiana swamps, but before it was released, Emancipation has been given an unexpected label: it is Will Smith’s first film since his Oscar slap. What worries its director, Antoine Fuqua.

Antoine Fuqua: “I am very worried”

Hollywood professionals were instead betting on a postponement because of the scandal, but Apple, which produces the feature film, decided to release it this weekend on American screens, despite fears of a possible boycott by the public. “I am very worried about this”confides to AFP Antoine Fuqua, who hopes that the message of his film will not be engulfed by the scent of sulfur surrounding its main 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”adds the director.

Before shocking the world by slapping comedian Chris Rock on the Oscars stage because of a questionable joke about his wife’s hair loss, Will Smith conquered Hollywood since the 1990s and “was a good man, in front of all of us, for 37 years”recalls the filmmaker.

quest for freedom

Emancipation is inspired by the story of “Whipped Peter”, a black slave who is remembered for the barbaric treatment inflicted on him by his masters, before he escaped from a cotton plantation during the American Civil War. Photos of his back, completely lacerated by whippings, have gone down in history as indelible proof of the brutality of slavery.

Will Smith embodies this character escaping from the claws 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 like a suspense thriller, more than a historical drama, and shows the abuse inflicted on slaves head-on. Brutal, the scenes of violence recall those of the multi-Oscar-winning film 12 years a Slave.

Premature return to the screens?

Will Smith’s performance is undeniable, but many critics wonder if the actor’s return to the screens is premature, just eight months after his slap. Banned from the Oscars ceremony for ten years, after having himself resigned from the Academy, the former “Prince of Bel Air” can in theory still be nominated and win a statuette. The output ofEmancipation in December also allows Apple to submit its film to the Oscars.

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Will Smith, who publicly apologized, “was wrong” to get carried away during the last Oscars, insists Antoine Fuqua, hoping that he is reconciled with Chris Rock far from the spotlight. But “Will is a good guy, I support him”, adds the director. During the difficult filming in the swamps of Louisiana, the actor “never complained”he points out.

Memory stake

The filmmaker insists on the imperious need to go out Emancipationat a time when memorial issues around slavery are causing multiple tensions in the United States. “There are discussions not to teach slavery in certain schools (…), as if they wanted to erase the past”, is indignant Antoine Fuqua. The Republican Party has strongly opposed reforms that considered changing the way slavery was taught and addressing systemic racism. American children should not “to learn that our country is bad by nature”estimated last year the boss of the conservatives in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, and other parliamentarians.

Antoine Fuqua draws a parallel between this resistance and the clichés of “Whipped Peter”, which were necessary to silence the voices that tried to minimize the horrors committed in the name of slavery at the end of the 19th century. “That’s why it’s so important to keep museums open, to keep all these things alive”he judges. “A lot of kids don’t even know what slavery is.”

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