Sometimes I found watching emancipation so painful it was almost unbearable. its director, Antoine Fuqua, knew this and – to his great credit I think – spoke to me frankly and at length for this group of questions and answers about his film. Will Smithboth producer and star, answered questions separately via email and his co-stars Ben Foster and Charmaine Bingwa spoke to me too. All of this means that while the Apple Original Film was a late entry on the calendar after what has now been a legendary difficult year for Smith, the team is very united behind it. In the film, Smith plays Peter, a man escaping the shackles of slavery through the treacherous swamps of Louisiana. It is inspired by the frankly unimaginable trials and tribulations of an escaped slave best known in history as “Whipped Peter”.
You’ve seen the photo of Whipped Peter that’s etched in the history books. Peter sits in front of the camera with his decimated back, covered in keloid scars, ravaged by whiplashes. The photo shows the physical manifestation of the atrocities of slavery, the inhumanity that man can inflict on man. It is so powerful that it became one of the most widely circulated images of slavery of the 19th century and beyond, shaping public opinion by depicting the horrors of the institution in a single image. The photo demands your attention even if you can hardly bear to look at it.
That fits emancipation is undaunted as we journey with Peter on his odyssey towards freedom and family. Fuqua and Smith ensure we witness Peter’s unimaginable plight – first through his warden Fassel, played by Foster, and then as a soldier defending the very country that enslaved him – all in an effort to get back to his wife , Dodienne, played by Bingwa in her film debut, and her children. Even Robert Richardsons cinematography is reminiscent of the photograph that inspired the film.
Not much is known about Peter other than the indelible photograph, but Fuqua worked with the historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar imagine his escape from slavery and eventual enlistment in the Union Army. Fuqua is the director who led Denzel Washington to his only Academy Award statuette for best actor as LAPD narcotics agent Alonzo Harris in the director’s 2001 film training day. In his acceptance speech, Washington called Fuqua “a brilliant young…African American filmmaker.” Since then, the director has made Southpaw, The glory sevenand The equalizer Franchise. Now, more than 20 years after helping Washington become only the second black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar, Fuqua has made it his goal to tell a story about our history, in part because he believes we run the risk of forgetting them.
“Some little children were born, the first President they saw was barack obama,‘ he tells me over Zoom. “If we start our story there, it means that we forget the whole past. We forget Martin Luther King. We forget Malcolm X. We forget all our great leaders in the past. Are we forgetting Nelson Mandela? We need to go back and have discussions about the past so we can move forward and start healing.”
Healing, of course, is not always a linear journey. Smith knows this firsthand, having spent much of the past year dealing with the aftermath of his outburst at the Oscars. He declined to answer a question about the episode and its impact on the film, but Fuqua spoke openly about it, saying in part, “The film is bigger to me than this moment. Four hundred years of slavery is greater than a moment. I hope people see it that way and watch the film and get carried away by the great performance by Will and all the really hard work that the whole crew has put in.”
emancipation hits theaters on December 2 and will stream on Apple TV+ the following week. Ahead, interviews with the filmmaker and his cast.
Director Antoine Fuqua
vanity fair: Since the death of George Floyd and Eric Garnerand the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a lot of conversation about how to represent – and whether we should represent – trauma and violence against black people, specifically black men, on the screen. Many people think we should shy away from it. But with emancipation, you went in the opposite direction. Why have you depicted brutality committed against black men?