Will Smith isn’t shying away from addressing his “personal baggage.” The actor has kicked off his press tour for his upcoming film, Emancipation, a drama following the journey of an enslaved man and directed by Antoine Fuqua. The film is already drawing acclaim and marks Smith’s first major film release since the 2022 Oscars, where he slapped presenter Chris Rock across the face after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith’s, baldness.
Smith has since apologized to the comedian, releasing a video on social media calling his behavior “unacceptable” and expressing his deep remorse. “I can say to all of you there is no part of me that thinks that was the right way to behave in that moment,” he told viewers in the video shared online in July. “There’s no part of me that thinks that’s the optimal way to handle a feeling of disrespect or insults.”
Still, the Academy Award winner says he doesn’t expect moviegoers to forget the polarizing incident anytime soon.
“I completely understand — if someone is not ready, I would absolutely respect that and allow them their space to not be ready,” Smith told journalist Kevin McCarthy when asked what he would say to moviegoers who aren’t ready for his comeback. “My deepest concern is my team — Antoine has done what I think is the greatest work of his entire career. The people on this team have done some of the best work of their entire careers, and my deepest hope is that my actions don’t penalize my team. At this point, that’s what I’m working for.”
“I’m hoping that the material — the power of the film, the timeliness of the story — I’m hoping that the good that can be done would open people’s hearts at a minimum to see and recognize and support the incredible artists in and around this film,” he added.
“I completely understand that if…someone is not ready, I would absolutely respect that and allow them their space to not be ready…My deepest hope is that my actions don’t penalize my team.”
Will Smith on audiences who aren’t ready to watch his films after Oscars. #GoodDayDCpic.twitter.com/2fc3XaXbMa
Emancipation tells the story of Peter, a man who escapes from slavery, relying on his wits, unwavering faith and deep love for his family to evade cold-blooded hunters and the unforgiving swamps of Louisiana on his quest for freedom. The film is inspired by the 1863 photos of “Whipped Peter,” which show Peter’s bare back and contributed to growing public opposition to slavery.
Fuqua previously defended releasing the film in the same year as the infamous slap during an interview with Vanity Fair, saying that the film was “bigger than that moment.”
“The film to me is bigger than that moment,” Fuqua said. “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.”
“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,” the director added. “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.”
Last month, Smith appeared during a screening of the film in Washington, D.C., at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 51st Annual Legislative Conference. The King Richard star took the stage to address why he chose to work on the film.
“Throughout my career I’ve turned down many films that were set in slavery. I never wanted to show us like that, you know, and then this picture came along,” he said. “This is not a film about slavery. This is a film about freedom. This is a film about resilience. This is a film about faith. It’s a film about the heart of a man.”
Emancipation will premiere in theaters on Dec. 2 and globally on Apple TV+ on Dec. 9.
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