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Will Smith’s first major film post-Oscars slap, Emancipation , earns praise at special screening

Ever since Will Smith won an Oscar — and slapped Chris Rock — his career has been in free-fall. Now the erstwhile Fresh Prince is out to prove there’s still some sheen to his crown.

Apple screened the new film Emancipation from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and starring Smith as Peter, an enslaved man who runs away from Louisiana in search of his family and ends up joining the Union Army.

The fate of the film, as well as a number of Smith’s projects, was up in the air after the-slap-not-seen-but-talked-about-around-the-world. But Apple, which produced Emancipation, hosted a screening with the NAACP during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 51st Annual Legislative Conference before an audience of social impact leaders, signaling its intention to release the film soon. And with the Oscars just around the corner.

Will Smith

Neilson Barnard/Getty Will Smith wins Best Actor for ‘King Richard’ at the 2022 Oscars

Following the screening, Smith, who has kept a rather low profile since the last Academy Awards, participated in a conversation with Fuqua, and Mary Elliott, curator of American Slavery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, moderated by political and cultural commentator Angela Rye.

“Throughout my career, I’ve turned down many films that were set in slavery,” Smith said at the screening. “I never wanted to show us like that. And then this picture came along. And this is not a film about slavery. This is a film about freedom. This is a film about resilience. This is a film about faith.”

New York’s Harper’s Weekly, the most widely-read journal during the Civil War, published an infamous image of the real-life Peter, (or Gordon, or “Whipped Peter”) with horrific scars on his back in 1863. The photo, which Smith referred to as “the first viral image,” provided Northerners with visual evidence of the brutality of slavery and inspired free Blacks to join the Union Army.

“This is a film about the heart of a man — what could be called the first viral image,” Smith said. “Cameras had just been created, and the image of ‘Whipped Peter’ went around the world. It was a rallying cry against slavery, and this was a story that exploded and blossomed in my heart that I wanted to be able to deliver to you in a way that only Antoine Fuqua could deliver.”

The film, and Smith, were greeted with a warm reception, with NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson calling it “a story of adversity, of resilience, of love, and of triumph.”

However, should Smith and Emancipation generate any Oscar buzz, Smith won’t be able to attend the ceremony, or any ceremony, for another 10 years.

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