«emancipation» marks the return of Will Smith in front of the general public. Almost like an official apology, the film directed by the director who brought Denzel Washington to an Oscar with «Training day», Antoine Fuqua, is based on the true story of a slave who tries to escape from a 19th century Louisiana plantation , sees the protagonist suffer all kinds of bullying and harassment on his way to freedom.
The story is inspired by a photograph, which has become a symbol of the liberation of African Americans in American iconography, taken in 1863. A man, remembered as Whipped Peter, after escaping captivity, shows the camera his back full of scars caused by the countless whiplashes suffered by the masters during years of slavery and forced labor. Smith’s performance, which in unsuspecting times could have earned the Philadelphia actor another Oscar nomination after the one he won last year thanks to his portrayal of Richard Williams, father of tennis players Venus and Serena, in “King Richard”. Exploit overshadowed by the unacceptable behavior of the star during the night of the stars, when he took the stage of the Dolby Theater to slap host Chris Rock after some unfortunate jokes made about his wife, Jade Pinkett Smith.
A bar scene, costing him dearly: Smith has been banned from attending the Oscars for the next decade and, while theoretically he could still be nominated, it is certainly too soon for the Academy to consider reinstating him. His performance in “Emancipation,” available on Apple TV+, won’t be enough to erase the bruise that slap left on his reputation.
Meanwhile, he tries to get up. Grape-colored dress, kind and thoughtful demeanor, she indulges at the film’s world premiere, at the Regency Village Theater in Westwood, Los Angeles. An interview granted on condition not to mention what happened at the Oscars.
What does the photo from which the film starts mean to you, Mister Smith?
“It’s a symbol, which I remember seeing when I was young. But now I know what each of those scars on Peter’s back has a meaning: it’s the story of a lifetime of abuse. In his memoirs we read of a time when he was beaten into a coma, at which time he recounts meeting God. When he woke up, he says he found himself in a new state of faith and revelation. . That was one of the most interesting aspects for me, understanding the difference between the two: if faith is blind faith in trying to resist, revelation happens when you finally see your God, after praying to him all your life. Peter had entered a completely new state of mind, the same one I dream of reaching too».
In «Emancipation» we see her fighting and suffering in the mud, fighting with alligators, running away from slavers.
“I thought I was much more prepared than I actually was. Acting that level of human atrocity, that kind of verbal and physical abuse, being called racist hundreds of times a day by very good actors in their role, was very difficult. I’ve found myself up to my neck in mud with non-stop rain and other extreme situations, while portraying a man who is being repeatedly bullied. On the screen you will be able to feel that suffering. It wasn’t just hard for me but for the whole team. On the set we had priests, a group of therapists and spiritual consultants, to help people who struggled the most to overcome those atmospheres ».
The challenges were many, from shooting a movie in the alligator-infested swamps to the pandemic, to a hurricane that hit the area just as you were shooting.
«First of all, I must say that Antoine and I supported and helped each other. Then we had an incredible staff and the people of Louisiana, people who showed up for work every day, rain or shine, without ever causing a problem. There had just been a hurricane and some of them no longer had homes, it was full of blue sheets over what little of the houses that were left standing. Yet they were always there, reliable and punctual. Also consider that, after the first closure due to the pandemic, we had to test more than four hundred people for Covid, every day. It took four hours just for that. We faced the difficulties together, just like our Peter we didn’t give up and we got to the result we hoped to achieve».
His fans have been eagerly awaiting his return. Why did he choose «Emancipation»?
“Look at where the United States is today and how many wrong things are happening in the world. This story is a reminder of the tragic consequences that can result from violence and cruelty among human beings. From Peter I learned that the concept of emancipation and freedom are inner ideas. His body was enslaved but his mind has always been free. He was convinced that if he kept his values firm, he would be able to achieve salvation, for himself and his family. There is a moment in the film where he is lost in the dangerous swamps of Louisiana, in the middle of a desperate escape, chased by a group of slavers on horseback. He stops, kneels, raises his hands to heaven and begins to pray in the middle of hell. A gesture of gratitude, as if he were thanking for that suffering, which represents his quality more important than him: an unshakeable faith that gives him infinite resistance. Something that I hope to be able to cultivate in myself».