Eight months after slapping comedian Chris Rock during the Oscars ceremony, Will Smith is back. The performer, who that same night won the award for Best Actor for his role in King Richard, has been preparing his comeback for weeks. His return coincides with the release of his new film, Emancipation, Apple TV+’s big bet for the upcoming awards season. Before the scandal, Smith was the platform’s strong asset to promote the movie, but his behavior that day changed everything. Even if he were nominated for an award, he would not be able to attend the Oscars, as the Academy has banned him from any of its events for a decade.
Set to be released on Friday, December 2 in selected theaters (a requirement to be eligible for the Oscars), Emancipation is Smith’s first movie since the slap affair. The film, directed by Antoine Fuqua, is based on the true story of a slave who flees a plantation in 19th-century Louisiana to reunite with his family. Smith plays the lead, Gordon, who went down in history as Whipped Peter. The image of his whipped, wounded back was seen around the world in 1863 and helped illustrate the cruelty of slavery.
That same picture caused a controversy on the red carpet of the Los Angeles premiere when producer Joey McFarland took the original print of the famous photograph to the event. “I wanted a piece of Peter to be here tonight,” McFarland explained. The gesture was not well received on social media, and some African-American activists were very critical. “I don’t know, man, but bringing ‘a piece of Peter’ that you ‘own’ to the red carpet of a movie that’s personally enriching you so that you can collect more slave memorabilia that you’ll keep until your death…,” said film producer Franklin Leonard in a message on Twitter. Later, McFarland apologized: “I hope my actions didn’t distract from the film’s message, Peter’s story and just how much impact he had on the world,” he wrote on Instagram.
Emancipation will be released on Apple TV+ on Friday, December 9. For months, the conversation in Hollywood had revolved around what the company would do with this film that cost more than $120 million. Many assumed that the release would be pushed back to 2023, by which time, the slap would have become old news. However, Apple decided to stay on course, in the hopes that the movie will follow in the footsteps of CODA, which became the first film released on a streaming service to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
In October, Smith held a private screening attended by some of the most powerful and influential African Americans in Hollywood, including Rihanna, rapper A$AP Rocky, comedian Dave Chappelle, filmmaker Tyler Perry and designer Fawn. Then, on November 29, he appeared on The Daily Show, hosted by his friend Trevor Noah on Comedy Central. On the show, he talked about all that went through his head during and after that “horrible night”: how a long bottled up anger made him lose his temper when he heard Rock’s joke about his wife, and how he has spent most of the year trying to forgive himself “for being human.”
The actor is aware that there are some who have not forgiven him, and does not rule out the possibility that many people will not want to see his new film and may even call for a boycott. “I completely understand if someone is not ready, I would absolutely respect that and allow them their space to not be ready. My deepest hope is that my actions don’t penalize my team,” he expressed recently in a brief interview for Good Day DC.