Shadow and Act has the exclusive teaser trailer debut for Emancipation, the upcoming movie from Apple Original Films starring Will Smith and directed by Antoine Fuqua.
The film will premiere in theaters on Dec. 2 before its Dec. 9 debut on Apple TV. The news comes after a screening of the film was hosted on Saturday with the NAACP during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 51th Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C.
The screening was followed by a conversation with Fuqua, Smith and Mary Elliott, curator of American Slavery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Angela Rye moderated.
‘Emancipation’ tells the triumphant story of Peter (Smith), 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,” taken during a Union Army medical examination, that first appeared in Harper’s Weekly. One image, known as “The Scourged Back,” which shows Peter’s bare back mutilated by a whipping delivered by his enslavers, ultimately contributed to growing public opposition to slavery.
“When I read the script, it was a movie that, when I read it, I thought, of course it’s about slavery [and] about the brutality of slavery and the forced labor of slavery–but, it was also a beautiful love story, and the love story about our people, and about faith,” he said. “It was so powerful for me that I removed it from just being a slave film as I imagined it and I wanted to make a film about faith. I wanted to make a film about love [and] about family, because the reality and the harshness that needed to be shown had to be centered in a positive place. I knew every night when I would leave the set and go home alone, I would feel the pain of knowing. Not knowing is hard, [but] knowing is harder.”
He continued, “I read the script, and I saw a strong character based in faith [and] based in love, then I thought it was film worth making. But I didn’t think it was going to be easy ever. During production, we called this film ‘Sacred Motivation,’ because I knew it was going to take everything I got and then some to make it. And it did.”
“I’ve never seen a film like this in the subject matter,” Fuqua explained. “I’ve always felt like a lot of times films are made about slavery, that they’re like Hallmark cards…[like] people singing hymns and [the] romanticism that goes with it sometimes. This is not that. This doesn’t shy away from brutality nor it doesn’t minimize brutality and the reality of it, and there’s a strong character to center. It’s hard to make a film about the subject matter that’s inspiring. But the scorched back of Peter, the actual photo, it inspired. It was a rallying cry against slavery, and here we are making a film about it today. That’s what Will’s character, Peter, is about. So, I don’t think people go to see a movie about slaves to walk out feeling inspired. I hope they will on this one.”
“First off, Will Smith’s a great actor, and he’s grown like we all grow in our talents over the years,” he said. “Will’s grown. In every film, he gets better and better and better. When you think about slavery, you don’t think about Will Smith, but the reality is, Will Smith back then [in] 1863 would’ve been a slave. So to have someone like Will, who you don’t expect ever to look the way he looks in this film, to be viewed as a slave in the harsh situations, [he’s] the perfect guy. No one would ever think about Will Smith as a slave, but the truth is, in 1863, he would’ve been, and that’s heartbreaking to watch.”
“It certainly gave me a little more fire to tell the story, because I feel like we’re at crossroads in this country in particular,” he added. And, it’s almost like we’re going backwards, and we will not go backwards. But, the only way to start a process of healing and conversation is by looking at the truth. The power we have as filmmakers is to try our best to put it on the screen, so that people can have these conversations about the ugliness of slavery, or just the ugliness of inhumanity. It certainly gave me more motivation to, by any means necessary, to tell this story.”
Filming also took a toll on the cast and crew. “We had an amazing crew, both black and white, and a lot of the white crew would come to me,” he continued. “People were crying. We had psychologists helping people that were dealing with their emotions. Some of the actors that were playing Confederates would come up to me, and they had tears in their eyes. Some of the crew would come up to me with tears in their eyes– Black and white. And, they were determined, through all the things we went through, hurricane, the heat, COVID, you name it….tornadoes. None of them abandoned ship. They kept fighting with us to make the film in a good way. So it felt good to walk on the set every day and see the fire in everyone’s eyes to tell this story in the right way.”