While promoting his latest film project, actor Will Smith is speaking about faith, freedom, and forgiveness. In “Emancipation,” which begins streaming on Apple TV+ December 9, Smith plays an escaped slave known only as “Whipped Peter.” A photo of the man’s lash-scarred back, published in 1863 during the Civil War, helped expose slavery’s brutality.
Smith says he was intrigued by the story that might lie behind that searing image. Director Antoine Fuqua’s “Emancipation” envisions the beaten man falling into a coma and then meeting God. After Peter escapes from a sadistic overseer in Louisiana, he survives a 40-mile journey through swampland.
‘Emancipation’ Is ‘A Freedom Movie, Says Smith’
Speaking to Trevor Noah November 28 on “The Daily Show,” Smith says he promised his family he “wouldn’t make a slave movie.” Instead, he calls “Emancipation” a “freedom movie.”
The film also explores Peter’s faith, which was elevated to “revelation,” according to Smith. “He walked in the world with a knowledge of the divine, a knowledge of God that is just something that I’ve just desperately wanted to understand and explore.” Of Peter’s ordeal, the actor says, “What he had to endure and what he had to survive, only God could make a man, when you look at those marks on his back, only God could make that possible.”
About his own relationship with God, Smith, 54, said last year, “You can’t get where I get if you don’t love the Lord. You don’t get to sit how I sit, move how I move, if you don’t love the Lord. You’d be seeing a whole lot of other repercussions.”
Actor Grapples With Being ‘a Flawed Human’
Smith is still dealing with the repercussions of his slapping incident at the 2022 Academy Awards. During the live telecast in March, he hit host Chris Rock across the face for joking about his wife’s appearance. Smith, who won the Best Actor award that night for “King Richard,” is now banned from all Academy events for the next decade.
Calling that night “horrific,” Smith told Noah, “I lost it, and I guess what I would say, you just never know what somebody’s going through, you know? I was going through something that night. Not that that justifies my behavior at all.” The actor described “a rage that had been bottled for a really long time,” noting that his father used to “beat up” his mother.
When asked what he’s learned, Smith replied, “We’ve just gotta be nice to each other,” adding he now understands the saying that “hurt people hurt people.” He says he’s “had to forgive myself for being human. Trust me, there’s nobody that hates the fact that I’m human more than me. … I’ve always wanted to be Superman and swoop in and save the damsel in distress, and I had to humble down and realize that I’m a flawed human and I still have an opportunity to go out in the world and contribute in a way that fills my heart and hopefully helps other people.”
Smith encourages moviegoers not to skip the film on account of his previous behavior. The cast and director “created an absolute masterpiece,” he says, “and the idea that they might be denied because of me, that is killing me dead.”