Apple Original Films has dated the run-from-slavery thriller Emancipation for a December 2 theatrical opening, followed by a December 9 release on its Apple TV+ streaming site. This follows the film’s first showing in DC on Saturday, with star Will Smith and director Antoine Fuqua (who flew in from Italy, where he and Denzel Washington are shooting a third Equalizer film) discussed the fact-based film in a screening orchestrated by Apple and NAACP during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Legislative Conference.
There has been much speculation — and erroneous reporting — as Apple and its filmmakers plotted just what to do with a meaningful film whose status as an awards-season frontrunner changed the moment Smith slapped presenter Chris Rock during the last Oscars, after the comic disparaged his wife with a joke about her hair. Smith, who shortly after won the Best Actor Oscar, and while the Academy allowed him an acceptance speech, it subsequently banned Smith for a decade for a terrible personal act in the worst possible venue.
Apple heads Zach Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht are coming off the first streamer Best Picture win on CODA, and they knew another awards-caliber film The Killers of the Flower Moon would not be ready this year, and was moving to a 2023 Cannes Film Festival premiere. There is good reason to but Emancipation out now, possible backlash be damned. They have stepped up.
Deadline reveals here the first trailer for the film (watch it above), along with the first interview with Fuqua. It has been buzzed about for a while that Emancipation is the best film he has made in a long career, but that his Oscar hopes could be dashed by The Slap, much the way that Mel Gibson’s terrific survival tale Apocalypto did years ago. Here, Fuqua describes the steps that were taken in figuring out the release of the film, the adversity in its making, and his hopes for the film.
DEADLINE: How’d it feel to finally show Emancipation to an audience that really cares about the central historical issues in the film?
ANTOINE FUQUA: It felt incredible. This was really our first time experiencing it with a complete film and an audience. To watch people react, gasping, talking and commenting on things that were happening in the film, really all the things you hope your movie would do for an audience. It moved them, entertained them. We had a great conversation about the subject matter that was important to them. So, yeah, it was pretty amazing.
DEADLINE: What were some of the things that resonated, that hit you when you read the script and signed on to do it will Will Smith way back when?
FUQUA: One thing, when I first read the script, I was inspired. For me as a director, doing a film about slavery is daunting. Because you want to get it right and I’d want to make it as truthful and as authentic as I can. What I found is, it was very inspiring to people. Peter’s image from 1863 inspired me to want to make the film and inspired Will to want to make the film. It seemed to inspire the audience similarly; they clapped and cheered afterward. That was the thing I felt most moved by.
DEADLINE: Emancipation might have come in as an awards-season front-runner, had the unfortunate events of the last Oscar night not happened. Can you share a bit about the discussions that happened after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock after he’d made that joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s hair, and the back and forth about whether to wait, or to put the film out this year?
FUQUA: Really, I was always saying that, as a filmmaker, you want your work out there, especially something this important. It was Apple, behind the scenes, they were pushing that as well, trying to navigate through the waters. They 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. We moved from Georgia to Louisiana, and they never blinked. We weathered hurricanes, Covid, all those things.
DEADLINE: How much of a toll did the hurricane take on your production?
FUQUA: It was the hardest film I ever did. We were down for a little over a month. Just about every location that we had was wiped away. We had to re-scout for locations. I was in Louisiana, had to go to Baton Rouge, and the locations I’d fallen in love with were no longer there, or were impossible to get to. People on the set, the crew, who worked on the film from Louisiana, some of them were homeless and were trying to figure out where they were going to stay when we came back. Again, Apple stepped up to help people, but it was a tough one. I’d never experienced anything quite like that before, it was a scary thing to be around. When we came back, we still had to deal with a city that was getting back on its feet. We were still dealing with locations we couldn’t get to, or would just take longer to get to. The heat didn’t help, and we had to film in the swamps. So, going back into the swamps was dangerous at times, but it’s funny. The new locations we found, and the others we decided to shoot in, actually were better for the film. They were harsh and lent a reality to it that the people living there at that time had to survive through.
DEADLINE: What’s that like, taking a Hollywood superstar and depositing him in a real swamp? Any close calls with snakes, alligators? How do you make him feel comfortable and not terrified?
FUQUA: We did everything we could, with alligator wranglers, and snake wranglers, and wolf spiders and you name it. I had some of my Navy SEAL buddies there, to protect everyone. To Will’s credit, I remember one of the first days we were shooting, and there’s a moment he has to run into the swamp. I’m thinking maybe we’re going to have to face replace the shot, because you know, there’s alligators out there. I describe it to Will, and he says, OK, this is what I do. Let’s go. I thought, OK, he’s in this. And he did it. A few times.
DEADLINE: I remember we met after you’d returned from The Magnificent Seven, and a sudden flash flood washed some of your sets away.
FUQUA: Maybe I have amnesia, and just keep going back to the pain. There, we experienced the heavy rain and the heat, but not a hurricane. Here, there was no cover, because it was an outdoor adventure. Filming in a confederate camp, with very little cover. So we had to be outside and there were times we had to shut down for hours, just to let people cool off. Apple brought in ice vests, to try to keep people cool, but it was almost unbearable. We had a tornado, a hurricane. And Covid. Over 300 people, sometimes 600 doing battle scenes, and who couldn’t get out of their cars until they were Covid tested. Me and Bob Richardson the DP, Will, we would stand on the set, and we had to wait. We’re watching the sun go down, and we knew we had only a certain amount of time to get what we needed. That put a lot of pressure on the production.
DEADLINE: After the Oscar slap, Will got banned a decade by the Academy. I can imagine how regretful he is for marring what should have been a triumphant night for him. Your reaction to the position that Will put this film through, and all the people who persevered through these harsh conditions and adversity?
FUQUA: [pauses]…Will Smith is a great guy. 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.
DEADLINE: The first time we revealed this movie and the auction, the horrible video of George Floyd dying was fresh in our minds. Now, because there’s a movie coming back, we are thinking about those shocking photos of Emmett Till’s battered body, and there is the Rodney King video and images of the violence in the Selma march. Images can convey so much more than words. The photos of Peter’s scourged back taken when he joined the Union Army reverberated around the world. In terms of the higher meaning in a film like this which is essentially a survival story, what would you say?
FUQUA: We need to know truth to begin the healing. 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.
DEADLINE: From Training Day to many others, you’ve made great movies. How does this one stack up in terms of what you’ve built toward as a filmmaker?
FUQUA: I see a lot of maturity in the work. My best film? I said when I finished that it was my strongest piece of work and can certainly say it’s my most important film. I’ll leave it to everyone else to judge, but I feel there’s a lot of growth in the work.
DEADLINE: And Will Smith?
FUQUA: Will is on a whole different level, in this film. Incredible.