Will Smith’s Slave Drama Isn’t A Redemption — Will You See It Anyway?

There they were: A collective of Black culture royals—Rihanna and beau A$AP Rocky, Dave Chappelle, Tyler Perry, Kenya Barris—all of them (save RiRi and her puckered lips) all smiles as they served as the affirmative background of a Will Smith selfie. The occasion for that mirthful photo of elites was a private screening of Will’s movie Emancipation. He took the pic and posted it back in October, and the intent was clear.

Damn, we were to think. Look who’s all standing with him. Emancipation had been one of several of Will’s projects reported to be imperiled by his ineffable, indelible, unprecedented decision to saunter onto the stage of the Academy Awards and slap Chris Rock for joking about his wife, Jada. Prior to that infamous deed, Emancipation was anticipated as an Oscar contender and Will’s performance in it hyped as yet another worthy of an Academy Award. (Recall he won Best Actor that night for King Richard.)

Post-slap, Will was, by and large, persona non grata in Hollywood, a censure that included the Academy banning him from attending the ceremony for ten years, as well as hella Hollywood stars condemning both his actions and him.

Will made some weak attempts at showing compunction, which Chris hasn’t accepted—but did address in his stand-up. “Everybody is trying to be a fucking victim,” he joked, according to CNN. “If everybody claims to be a victim, then nobody will hear the real victims. Even me getting smacked by Suge Smith . . . I went to work the next day. I got kids.”

But oh what a difference eight months has made. For reconciliation or not, Apple decided to release the film this year after all. And it’s no small coinkydink that its December 2 theatrical release date makes it eligible for Oscar consideration.

Now, I’m all for second chances in general, but in addition to the warranted skepticism over Will’s apologies, I have to wonder: What changed? Wonder if the slap became any less egregious to the execs. Wonder if Apple ever cared forreal, forreal about the traumatic impact of people seeing violence in that context. If they gave a good gotdamn how it perpetuated the stereotype of the violent Black man. Wonder if they’ll center Will’s comeback as they PR a bid for back-to-back Best Picture wins. (CODA won last year.) Emancipation is coming no matter how we answer those questions, which means there’s a query that more than a few moviegoers will pose to themselves.

To see or not to see the film?

will smith

Less than a year after The Slap, Will Smith is leading an Oscar-contending film. But is the world—or, am I—ready to see Emancipation?

Neilson Barnard//Getty Images

For me, the answer is anything but simple. On the one hand, there’s the not-to-be-diminished psychic harm done by Will—a megastar by any measure—to everyone who’s triggered by violence. There’s reconciling the blatant perpetuation of the stereotype I mentioned above with the message it sends both to impressionable folks and to those who would use it as fuel to harm us. There’s the mishandling and apparent inauthenticity of his and Jada’s attempts at atonement, missteps that read more like alibis. There’s the fact that, though on the right side of justice it may be, the film portrays Will fleeing slave patrollers, which portends his enacting violence onscreen. There’s the wisdom that I can, and in most cases should, register my displeasure with a public figure by withholding my tangible, financial support of them.

And running as subtext to all of that dubiety is my sometimes philosophical struggle with supporting films about slavery. (Will once shared that he’d always avoided making films about slavery because he didn’t want to show Black people in that light, wanted instead to “depict Black excellence.”) Running as subtext is my questioning whether my support reinforces what seems Hollywood’s tendency to favor films about our bondage, as if that were the only context in which Black lives own gravitas.

On the other hand, there’s my personal relationship with Will’s stellar, decades-long career. All them finger-licking-good backyard barbecues I spent blasting “Summertime,” all those years knee-slapping to episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, all the theater hours I logged rooting for Will’s characters in Bad Boys, Independence Day, I Am Legend, Ali, The Pursuit of Happyness. There’s my appreciation for all the effort Will has put into encouraging us to live better lives.

Further, there’s the constant motivation to support Black cinema, the fact that this film features several Black actors whose careers it could propel: Charmaine Bingwa, Mustafa Shakir, and Gilbert Owuor among them. Plus, my belief in Antoine Fuqua—the same director behind Denzel’s only Best Actor Oscar win, in Training Day—as the film’s auteur. Not to mention feeling compelled to do my part in ensuring that the people who treat box- office receipts like the Holy Grail know there’s measurable interest in important Black stories.


Antoine Fuqua and Will Smith on set of Emancipation.

Quantrell Colbert / Courtesy of Apple

And perhaps most of all, there’s the flat-out necessity of this particular Black story being told.

Emancipation follows an enslaved man named Peter, played by Will, who escapes from a plantation in Louisiana after being beaten almost to death. According to the story that inspired the film, he found refuge with a Union army camp and fought as a Union soldier in the Civil War. (He was reported to have served in an all-Black regiment and to have fought in the Siege of Port Hudson, noted as the first Civil War assault in which Blacks played a leading role.)

Peter was made famous by an 1863 photograph, known as “The Scourged Back,” for its revelation of his whip-beaten scars. Attributed to William D. McPherson and his partner Oliver, who are thought to have taken it while Peter was being mustered into the Union army, the photo was reproduced by beaucoup photography studios in the North and appeared as part of a triptych in a special Independence Day feature of Harper’s Weekly that year. No few historians credit the photo with helping to spur the abolitionist movement. W. E. B. Du Bois once argued, “All art is propaganda and ever must be.” Well, however much art it is—and the early feedback is that it’s superlative work—Emancipation is also propaganda.

But don’t we need it?


According to the story that inspired the film, Peter (played by Will Smith on screen) found refuge with a Union army camp and fought as a Union soldier in the Civil War.

Quantrell Colbert / Courtesy of Apple

With people still out here claiming the Civil War was fought over states’ rights; with Stone Mountain Park—the site of America’s largest Confederate monument—still claiming to attract 4 million visitors a year; with the malevolence of hate crimes against Asian Americans; with the bald-faced revisionist goals that motivated Texas to pass a law aimed at keeping classrooms free of topics that make white kids feel “discomfort”; with, furthermore, a group of Texas educators deigning (do remember Juneteenth) a proposal to teach slavery as “involuntary relocation”; with Ye’s “slavery for 400 years . . . that sounds like a choice” and “White Lives Matter” tomfoolery and the concomitance of white dudes violencing Nazi salutes on a California overpass; with all that and so, so, so much more.

We need Emancipation as much as we do any big-budget Hollywood offering. Because of all the people hell-bent on dooming us to repeat the wrong sides of history. Because the untold, under explored stories of slavery are the untold, under explored stories of America. Because the real Peter wasn’t just a heroic Black icon; he was a heroic American one.

So, will I watch Emancipation?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Count on me to cop a ticket and a tub of popcorn and catch it in a theater. To engage with it the way I do any serious art, with as open a heart as I can spare and my best critical mind.

That’s me.

But what say you?

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