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Will Smith Explains Why He Avoided Making Movies About Slavery

Will Smith in King Richard
(Image credit: (Warner Bros))

Will Smith has had a packed three decades as an actor, playing everything from Muhammed Ali to a cowboy, to fighting aliens and robots, and even being Aladdin’s Genie. The 53-year-old actor has collected a lot of impressive accomplishments throughout his career, but one recent unexpected one was perhaps with Emancipation. The movie currently being shot in Louisiana became the largest film festival acquisition in film history last summer when it was sold for $100 million. It also marks another first for Smith, as it's the first time he's exploring slavery in a cinematic setting.

According to the Bad Boys actor, Emancipation is shaping up to be an epic akin to Lawrence of Arabia with an action flick flair that is about dehumanizing violence of slavery and perseverance. It will star Will Smith as “Whipped Peter,” a man who was depicted in one of the most famous photos of an American slave. While speaking to GQ, Smith noted that Emancipation marks an intentional first for him, saying:

I’ve always avoided making films about slavery. In the early part of my career… I didn’t want to show Black people in that light. I wanted to be a superhero. So I wanted to depict Black excellence alongside my white counterparts. I wanted to play roles that you would give to Tom Cruise. And the first time I considered it was Django. But I didn’t want to make a slavery film about vengeance.

Will Smith has made a conscious decision throughout his career to not play a slave in a movie. The actor could have signed on to play one in the past, most notably with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but he’d never been interested in doing so. Smith shared that he wanted to be the larger-than-life movie star that he became, i.e. someone who could take on the same roles that action stars like Tom Cruise also score.

When it comes to Emancipation, Will Smith was ready to take on that type of role. The movie, set to be directed by The Equalizer’s Antoine Fuqua from a script by Bill Collage, follows Smith as a runaway slave, and tells a story involving a slave the actor actually wanted to be part of. As he shared:

This was one that was about love and the power of Black love. And that was something that I could rock with. We were going to make a story about how Black love makes us invincible.

There have been many famous movies about slavery over the years, such as 2014’s Academy Award for Best Picture winner 12 Years A Slave, 1989’s Glory, 1997’s Amistad and 2016’s Birth of a Nation. It’s an important topic in American history that will continue to be explored for years to come. As Smith shared, it was important for him to portray people on film who symbolized positive things and contributed to forwarding Black excellence.

For many people growing up in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, Will Smith was one of the few Black action stars who went that route, and in effect made some iconic movies like Men In Black, Independence Day and Bad Boys. While Emancipation continues filming, Will Smith is set to first play Venus and Serena Williams' father and coach in King Richard, coming to theaters and HBO Max on November 19.

Sarah El-Mahmoud

YA genre tribute. Horror May Queen. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.