Contrary to reports that Will Smith’s next film would be postponed to next year because of the Oscars slap, Apple confirmed Monday that “Emancipation” — a slavery drama starring Smith and directed by Antoine Fuqua — will be released in December at the height of awards season.
In a new teaser trailer for the movie, Smith portrays Peter, an enslaved person who escapes a Louisiana plantation and embarks on a harrowing journey north during the Civil War. His character is inspired by Gordon, or “Whipped Peter,” a man who freed himself from his enslavers and joined the Union Army.
“This was the hardest movie I’ve ever made,” Smith wrote Monday on Instagram. “Blood, Sweat & Tears… LITERALLY!”
The trailer depicts a number of ominous images — blood dripping on a leaf, a Confederate flag billowing in the breeze, humans being trafficked in cages — as Smith’s character plots his way to freedom.
“I heard it myself. Slaves are free,” Smith’s character tells other enslaved people, citing former President Abraham Lincoln.
“We must get to Lincoln’s army. Five days through the swamp,” he says.
“There are many ways to die in a swamp,” another person on the plantation warns, to which Peter replies, “There are many ways to die here.”
The remainder of the teaser sees Peter lead a daring five-day expedition through the wilderness while narrowly evading capture from kidnappers on horseback.
“I will not be afraid,” Peter says. “What can a mere man do to me? My family is with me forever. I will look in triumph at my enemies.”
In the YouTube thumbnail for the trailer, Peter can be seen posing for photos during a medical examination conducted by the Union Army.
The still is a nod to “The Scourged Back,” an 1863 picture of the real Gordon that was widely distributed as evidence of the cruelty inflicted on enslaved people in the United States. The historical image — which first appeared in a July 4 issue of Harper’s Weekly and helped fuel the abolitionist movement — shows a bare back covered in whipping scars.
The trailer for “Emancipation” comes several months after the academy banned Smith from attending the Oscars for 10 years as punishment for slapping presenter Chris Rock at this year’s ceremony. Smith has repeatedly apologized for the incident and has begun promoting his projects again on social media.
Though the academy stopped short of disqualifying Smith from future Oscar nominations, industry experts have speculated as to whether the slap will still hurt the A-lister’s chances of getting nominated for “Emancipation,” which was expected to garner awards buzz.
“Will Smith is a great guy,” Fuqua recently told Deadline.
“I was with him for a couple of years, making this movie. He is a wonderful person, an amazing partner and he did an amazing job on this movie. Chris Rock’s a good guy, I know Chris as well … and I just pray it works out for them as friends, and we can move forward.”
Despite the harsh backlash to Smith’s Oscars outburst and rumors of the actor getting blacklisted in the industry, Fuqua said Apple “never stopped talking about releasing the film, and when would be best strategically.”
“Apple would call me often, with Will, and I have to say Apple has been amazing through this whole film,” Fuqua added. “We moved from Georgia to Louisiana, and they never blinked. We weathered hurricanes, COVID, all those things.”
On Saturday, the NAACP, Fuqua and Smith — who is credited as a producer on the film — hosted a screening of “Emancipation” during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 51st Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. The movie also stars Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Gilbert Owuor, Mustafa Shakir, Steven Ogg, Grant Harvey, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Jayson Warner Smith, Jabbar Lewis, Michael Luwoye, Aaron Moten and Imani Pullum.
“We need to know truth to begin the healing,” Fuqua told Deadline.
“We have a lot of healing to do here, but if we can look at the film with open hearts and open minds, and have a real conversation about the ugly brutality and reality of slavery, that might help with the healing. I think it is important for people to see that.”
“Emancipation” hits theaters Dec. 2 and begins streaming on Apple TV+ on Dec. 9.