“I had a hard time, but I’m grateful”: more than eight months after the Oscar scandal, Will Smith returns in the film “Emancipation”, on Apple TV +

The last image we had of Will Smith was the slap he slapped on Chris Rock at the last Oscars. Today, he brings a famous slave from (sad) American history back to life in a film that is both hard and beautiful, but above all essential.

Since March 27, the evening of “the” slap that offended many people at the Oscars, Will Smith has been very discreet. But as they say, “show must go on,” and he’s back in a movie that might make Hollywood want to forgive him, or even reward him. This film is “Emancipation”, it arrives this Friday, December 9 on Apple TV + and has allowed the 54-year-old actor to find “the” role of his life. It is based on the story of a real-life slave, Gordon – on-screen Peter – who escaped from the plantation in Louisiana where he was exploited in the early 1860s. led to freedom, and that of his family, after a succession of obstacles and abuses from which no one could, a priori, come out alive.

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You have understood: this film with black and white images is very harsh, but paradoxically, we found it beautiful, too. No doubt because Peter’s sufferings were not in vain, like the photos of his bare back destroyed by the whip, eternal symbols of the incredible barbarism that was slavery in the United States. Which was abolished in 1863. “At that time, Will Smith, now a star, would have been a slave”, reminded us Antoine Fuqua, director of this film which is a new reminder… At his side, Will Smith spoke to reporters for the first time since the Oscars incident. Subject that was obviously avoided. Here is what he told us.

Will, this is your first time playing a slave. In this film, you are chained, in the mud, in the trees… You gave 3,000% for this role! How did you prepare for it, mentally and physically?

In fact, I thought I was much more prepared than I actually was. Playing a man facing such a level of atrocities, physical violence and verbal humiliation, being called a nigger a hundred times a day by very good actors, all of this has to have an impact on you. In addition, we shot in harsh weather conditions. And I really plunged up to my neck in swamps! But when I saw the final result, I left in a kind of ecstasy because all these elements make you really feel what Peter went through… I hasten to clarify that I am far from being the only one to have drooled over it. The whole team suffered terribly, to the point that we had to call on priests, therapists and spiritual advisers behind the scenes. As a man and as an artist, I am extremely grateful to Peter and the difficulties encountered on this shoot. I was brought up in a certain way that, without this film, I would never have learned everything it conveys. It was a new lesson for me.

Will Smith on the set of EMANCIPATION with director Antoine Fuqua.
Will Smith on the set of EMANCIPATION with director Antoine Fuqua. -DR

Do you think the people who made this movie, and yourself, were tested by God, like Peter was one hundred and fifty years ago…

Absolutely. As I just said, on this film, we had everything, starting, of course, with the Covid. Every day, more than four hundred extras had to be tested before they could get out of their cars, which took four to six hours. And then there were the hurricanes… From there we thought there was something spiritual that wanted to see how we were going to get through this, and likewise Peter’s faith was tested throughout his flight to freedom. Art and life then made a bitter-tasting but empowering mix upon arrival. In relation to this very spiritual atmosphere, one specific thing happened, moreover.

What happened ?

One day, while filming on a plantation, a young woman literally received the Spirit. She started speaking several languages ​​and shaking. Antoine and I hugged her, she was in the middle of a purge. I grew up in the Baptist Church (evangelical Christian movement, editor’s note), so I had already witnessed something like this. But there it was really impressive, frightening, and at the same time beautiful and divine. In any case, it was a sign of the type of energy that affected us all at that time.

What does the word “emancipation” mean to you?

You know, what I learned from Peter is that empowerment is something within. His body was enslaved, but his mind was still free. He was a spiritual warrior who learned, through the worst, never to doubt God, never to lose the unchanging power of his faith and his love. He believed that as long as he kept his trust in God, he would honor his promise to save him and his family and bring him ultimate wisdom and happiness. For me, his emancipation was his spiritual independence.

Our correspondent in Los Angeles with Will Smith.
Our correspondent in Los Angeles with Will Smith. -DR

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“I had a hard time, but I’m grateful”: more than eight months after the Oscar scandal, Will Smith returns in the film “Emancipation”, on Apple TV +