Will Smith’s ‘Emancipation’ role taught him a lesson after the slap

THE ANGELS — While filming “Emancipation,” Will Smith was regularly inspired by the words “sacred motivation” that were written on the cover of a script. But the Oscar winner has leaned heavily on the phrase even more in recent months as he tried to get over the backlash to his Oscars slap and banishment from the ceremony.

“It’s like when you can ground yourself and focus on your divine purpose, you can resist anything and everything,” Smith said of the line that greeted him when he took on the title role in Antoine Fuqua’s “Emancipation,” now in theaters. . and will be available to stream Friday on Apple TV+. “Sacred motivation” became a theme for him and his co-stars, Smith said.

The film, completed months before Smith took the Oscars stage and slapped host Chris Rock over a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, was a grueling shoot. Inspired by an iconic 1863 photo of the scarred back of “Battered Peter,” Smith portrays the character of Peter, a man trying to escape slavery while using his wits to dodge slave catchers and brave the swamps of Louisiana infested with alligators in their search for freedom. .

The photos of “Battered Peter” were taken during a Union Army medical exam that first appeared in Harper’s Weekly. An image known as “The Whipping Back” showed countless mutilated lash marks on Peter’s bare back that were delivered by his enslavers. The photo contributed to the growing opposition to slavery.

Smith said her character taught her a lesson in overcoming adversity after facing criticism, memes and a 10-year Oscar ban. The “slap” apparently overshadowed the biggest milestone of his career, which came later in the evening: winning his first Academy Award, best actor for “King Richard.”

The backlash rocked Smith, but Peter eventually helped him get back on track as well.

“Peter has absolutely helped me these last few months, just resetting within me what my purpose in this world is,” Smith said in a recent interview, one of the first since the Oscars. He has repeatedly apologized for his behavior after accepting the ban from him.

Normally, “Emancipation” could earn Smith a big splash at the Oscars. He is still eligible for nominations and awards, but she cannot personally accept them. Given the backlash to “The Slap,” Smith mainly hopes that audiences will continue to see Fuqua’s film.

“This movie was so exhausting. Literally across the board, everyone had to put a tremendous amount of suffering into what you see on that screen,” Smith said. “So my biggest wish, and I think I can talk about my biggest fear, is for my team to be penalized for my actions. I’m out with this movie that I love and I strictly want my people to get their flowers.”

Fuqua knows that Smith made a mistake, but hopes that the public can get over it. The director believes that the story about Peter’s search for freedom, the fight to return to his family and being a catalyst to highlight the horrible side of slavery in “Emancipation” is much bigger than “The Slap”.

“Peter’s story is very inspiring, especially as a black man. We go through a lot every day, just because we are black,” said Fuqua, known for directing the films “Training Day,” “Equalizer” and “The Magnificent Seven.” She said that her new film addresses how certain elements of racism in America still occur today.

“To me, it’s a mistake,” Fuqua said of Smith punching Rock on live television. “Hopefully everyone can get back to normal and God bless you all. But we are talking about 400 years of brutality.”

Bingwa, who plays Peter’s wife, Dodienne, credits Smith’s ability to endure adversity while overcoming it.

“It’s in line with the movie. I imagine it’s been a difficult period,” said Bingwa, who hopes the public can learn more about Peter’s determination to return home after making a promise. “I don’t want to speak for Will, but he has been an inspiration to so many for so long. I love seeing him stand tall. Everyone can learn from his experience. I love the way you took it on the chin, you wear it and you walk forward. We’re all human.

While promoting the film, Smith held private screenings for various influential figures, including Rihanna, Tyler Perry, Dave Chappelle, LeBron James, and his Los Angeles Lakers teammates, along with students from Morehouse College. He got a lot of support from those people, which gave him a sigh of relief.

Each time Smith returned to Peter’s story, he became more empowered to share his character’s journey.

“I feel very comfortable in this current situation with this project, with these people,” he said. “I feel clean. I feel purified and transformed in many ways. And as one of Peter’s lessons is, ‘Suffering leads to salvation.’ So I feel comfortable taking my medication.”

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