Antoine Fuqua thought the worst was behind him.
Early this year, the director of such films as “Training Day” and “The Equalizer” had just finished shooting his most ambitious movie yet, the period action thriller “Emancipation.” The story of an enslaved man named Peter (Will Smith) who undertakes a perilous escape through the Louisiana swamp to find freedom and reunite with his wife and children after Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the film had taken a considerable physical and emotional toll on the filmmaker.
“I’m still having PTSD from the swamps,” Fuqua told The Times over Zoom earlier this month from Italy, where he is shooting “The Equalizer 3.” “We had COVID, we had a hurricane, we had a tornado — it was unbelievable. I talked to Martin Scorsese, and he said, ‘Antoine, we must have amnesia. We keep going back to the pain.’”
Then, on the evening of March 27, Smith struck comedian Chris Rock in the face in front of a stunned audience of millions at the Academy Awards over a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith — before going on to win the lead actor award for “King Richard” less than an hour later.
Suddenly, Fuqua, who was in postproduction on “Emancipation,” found himself dealing with a whole new kind of pain.
In the wake of the slap, with Smith’s megawatt public image damaged, questions swirled over the fate of “Emancipation” amid reports that Apple Original Films, which spent a reported $120 million to produce the movie, was considering pushing back its release in an attempt to buffer it from the controversy. Ultimately, Apple chose to push ahead and is set to open the film in select theaters on Dec. 2 ahead of its streaming debut on Apple TV+ a week later — straight into the heart of Oscar season.
In recent weeks, in an effort to build buzz and shift the narrative around the film, “Emancipation” has had well-received screenings in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual conference, and at a private gathering in L.A. hosted by Smith and attended by several high-powered Black entertainment figures including Tyler Perry, Dave Chappelle, Rihanna and Kenya Barris.
The film’s backers hope “Emancipation” can stand on its own artistic merits and the importance of its subject matter. With a script by Bill Collage, the film is based on the true story of a man known as “Whipped Peter,” whose scarred back, captured in an 1863 photograph, became one of the most enduring and impactful images of the horrors of slavery.
With memories of Smith’s violent, profanity-laced Oscar-night meltdown still fresh, however, it remains to be seen how “Emancipation,” which co-stars Ben Foster as a racist bounty hunter on Peter’s trail, will fare as awards season heats up. Although Smith has resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has been banned from attending all academy events for the next 10 years, he could still be nominated both as the film’s lead actor and, should “Emancipation” land a best picture nod, as one of its producers.
The Times spoke with Fuqua about the importance of continuing to grapple with the history of slavery, the challenges of mounting a major Hollywood production in alligator-infested swampland and navigating the fallout from the slap heard ’round the world.
When this project first came to you, what resonated with you about the script? Had you ever considered taking on this chapter of history before?
Not really. There are stories about slavery that I have been interested in, but I’d never really had that North Star, that heartbeat that really made me want to do it. Because I knew it was going to be painful. For me, it was, if I can find a story that every human being — Black, white, whatever — could relate to, then it’s worth telling.
When I first read the script, I wrote “Sacred Motivation” on top of it because I knew it was going to take everything in me. Just the subject matter alone was a tough thing to deal with every day, dealing with something that you’re directly related to as a people.
The love story was really important. And Peter was an inspiring character — the fact that a man from 1863 who went through hell is still inspiring us today to tell stories about him and his journey. The movie is about family. It’s about faith. It’s about an inspiring, unselfish human being. That’s what I held on to out of the ugliness of it all.
Making a movie that reckons with the history of slavery is a huge responsibility. How did you wrap your mind around the enormity of it, particularly as a Black filmmaker?
Once I commit, I’m just focused on the task. But I knew every day I was going to deal with that.
I remember the first day Will tried on the collar around his neck; it got stuck, and you could see in his eyes what was happening. The idea of that, even for a few seconds, is almost unbearable for us. I got inside the wagon and I put the chains on myself, just to see. It’s like a different world. I remember telling [my director of photography] Bob Richardson, “I want it to feel like it’s almost like another planet.” Yet it’s so real in our history.
The more I dug into the research, the uglier it got. I’ve got my own personal history; I had one family member who was executed for what they called “eyeballing” a white woman in Florida, just looking at her. The more you go down the family tree, the tougher it is. I’m on my own journey to learn more about it and to get a better understanding of it.
Smith said in an interview last year that he resisted doing a movie about slavery earlier in his career because he said he didn’t want to “show Black people in that light.” What were your conversations with him about where “Emancipation” sits in relation to previous TV series or movies that have tackled slavery, whether it’s “Roots” or “12 Years a Slave”?
Will responded to the love story and to the inspirational part of it. To tell this type of story about this man who’s still inspiring us today, it can’t be about revenge and it can’t be about blaming anyone. It’s about just trying to find the truth in what happened. That’s what we talked a lot about.
I grew up with “Roots,” and that had a profound effect on me personally. “12 Years a Slave” is a fantastic film. But I wanted to make a movie that felt grittier and more brutal in the reality of what slavery was. I wanted to show forced labor, which is really what it was about.
But I also wanted to show a character who wasn’t playing fear. I didn’t want him to appear weak or shuffling around with his head down. That image of him in the “Scourged Back” [photograph], he looks very proud and strong. You know, in a lot of other films [about slavery], other people saved the day. In “12 Years a Slave,” Brad Pitt saved Chiwetel [Ejiofor]. I felt that this character had to save himself.
You shot most of this film in the dense swamps of Louisiana, which seems not only logistically nightmarish but dangerous. What was it like mounting a major film production in those kinds of conditions?
It was the hardest film I’ve ever done. I mean, we were in it. There were no creature comforts down there. Bugs everywhere. Wolf spiders as big as your hand. Alligators. Lightning strikes. The weather was over 100 degrees. We had to shut down because people were fainting from the heat. We were fully committed — or just crazy. But one way or the other, we kept going.
Early in the shooting, I needed Will to run down the hill and into the swamp. I thought I was going to have to do face replacement. And he said, “Man, this is what I do.” And he did it. I knew then I had a partner who was completely in.
Smith’s actions at the Oscars have hung over this movie ever since and saddled it with baggage that is obviously out of your control. There were reports over the summer that Apple was weighing pushing the movie’s release back to next year due to the controversy. What were those discussions like?
Honestly, Apple has always been great. They were amazing partners from the beginning. I understood what was happening. People were worried; there’s a lot of money involved in how people in the world felt about that moment. But there was always a positive conversation. It was never negative. It was always, “We’re going to figure it out.”
I had to be very patient and understand that there’s a big corporation behind all this, obviously, and there’s a lot of feelings behind what happened. I had to let it play out.
I was worried, of course, as a filmmaker, because so many people worked on this film and gave their heart and soul. We had people on the movie who were homeless after the hurricane. It was tough. I like to see people recognized for their work in one way or the other, and I thought it would be a shame for it to never be seen by anyone. And I feel like the subject matter is bigger than that event.
[Pauses.] Will is an amazing person, man. I’ve never met anybody like Will, honestly. Every day on the set was positive. He was in as tough a situation as you could be in that environment, and he never complained once. He would just say to me, “I’m at your service.” He took care of people. We had to stop him from saying hi to everybody, shaking everybody’s hands, because of COVID. He’s just a great human being. And I know Chris Rock, and he’s a great human being too. I just pray for the best for everybody.
There’s no question there would be a different kind of Oscar conversation around this movie if the slap had not happened. How concerned are you that awards voters could punish the movie because of their feelings about what Smith did?
I’m just taking everything as it comes, sticking to the task at hand, sticking to the work and the art. That’s all I can control, so I’m focused on that.
This movie is coming out at a time of incredible polarization around issues of race, fierce debates about how American history is taught in school, and fears of rising white nationalism. How are you hoping this film meets the zeitgeist right now?
The reason I wanted to make the movie was to remind young people of the brutality of how human beings treat each other, out of greed and ignorance. We’re seeing more of that brutality today in Europe and different parts of the world. It doesn’t seem like we are remembering our pasts. That’s a great responsibility.
I’m hoping to hit a nerve, for people to seek some truth about what slavery really was and have the conversation to try to start some sort of healing process. To even begin a real conversation, you’ve got to start with the truth — the brutality of the truth. We’ve got to start somewhere.