Emancipation’s Director Reveals How Will Smith’s Oscars Slap Influenced The Movie’s Release

We are slowly approaching the one-year anniversary of Will Smith’s first Oscar win for his critically praised portrayal of Venus and Serena Williams’ father, Richard Williams, in King Richard. Of course, the actor’s win was overshadowed by the events between him and comedian Chris Rock. The actor is currently doing press for the Antoine Fuqua-directed film Emancipation. The movie is Smith’s first film to hit theaters since the infamous Oscar slap that sent the internet into a tizzy. And though Smith declined to respond to Variety’s questions regarding how the incident influenced the movie’s release, Fuqua was very candid about its impact.

The filmmaker sat down with Variety to discuss the shocking use of brutality and depictions of violence in his forthcoming Civil War set action thriller, Emancipation. Following the Will Smith and Chris Rock Academy Awards incident, it seemed unclear whether Emancipation would be released this year. When asked how he and the producers decided to move forward with the film’s release, the director said it was always a conversation with Apple. He revealed they were closely monitoring what people had to say about the Will Smith-led movie’s approaching release. Fuqua told Variety: 

It was always a full conversation with Apple. They were very sensitive to myself, to Will, to all the people who worked on the movie. There was never a conversation with me and Apple or my producers, Todd Black and Jon Mone or Heather Washington, about the movie not coming out. It was more about, ‘We’re assessing everything. We’re seeing what people are saying.’ They were very careful about it. Then we showed the film to some people and their reactions were really positive, and we discussed it along the way.

Early screenings of Emancipation have been very positive–many calling it a powerful and must-see emotional film–and audiences’ positive reaction to the movie helped shape the filmmaker’s decision to release the film this year. Antoine Fuqua said he hopes four hundred years of slavery and brutality is more important to moviegoers than an “ugly” Hollywood moment. He also said he is grateful that the powers that be at Apple decided to move forward with the movie's release. The director continued: 

Of course I wanted people to see the film. 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. 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.

Emancipation marks Will Smith’s first collaboration with the Training Day and The Equalizer director. It was announced in June 2020 that the two would collaborate on the movie, but Smith’s image took a hit when the world watched him slap Chris Rock on live TV. Recently, while promoting the film on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Will Smith recalled an emotional interaction with his nine-year-old nephew. 

Though audience reaction to Emancipation seems strong, based on Academy Members’ feelings regarding Smith’s actions, it’s unclear if Fuqua’s film will be represented at the Academy Awards. Smith has shared his thoughts regarding the team behind the film not being recognized for their hard work due to his actions and his subsequent Academy banning. He told ReelBlend co-host Jake Hamilton:

I would just hope that these spectacular artists that have come together on this project, I would hope that they would no be penalized for a few horrific moments of indiscretion on my part.

Emancipation is based on a true story and sees Smith playing an enslaved man named Peter who escapes captivity and outwits cold-blooded hunters on his way to the North, where he joins the Union Army. The Antoine Fuqua-directed upcoming movie releases in theaters on December 2nd and comes to streaming on December 9th. All you need to be able to watch Emancipation comfortably at home is an Apple TV+ subscription

Ryan LaBee

Ryan graduated from Missouri State University with a BA in English/Creative Writing.