Will Smith has a new upcoming project and it appears to be a brutally honest look into America’s history.
According to Deadline, Smith will be starring in Emancipation, an action-thriller chronicling the escape of enslaved man Peter Gordon, who is “forced to outwit cold-blooded hunters and the unforgiving swamps of Louisiana on a tortuous journey North.” The film will be directed by Antoine Fuqua and Willam N. Collage has penned the script. Gordon, known as “Whipped Peter,” was the subject of the historic 1863 scourged back photo, the first to reflect the brutal violence against America’s enslaved population in such a visceral way.
Deadline’s Mike Fleming, Jr. gives a bit more insight into the film’s synopsis:
The thriller is based on a true story, fueled by an indelible image; when Peter showed his bare back during an Army medical examination, photos were taken of the scars from a whipping delivered by an overseer on the plantation owned by John and Bridget Lyons that nearly killed him. When the photo known as “the scourged back” was published by the Independent in May, 1863 and then in Harper’s Weekly‘s July 4 issue, it became indisputable proof of the cruelty and barbarity of slavery in America. The photo reached around the world, and legend has it that it made countries like France refuse to buy cotton from the South. It solidified the cause of abolitionists and prompted many free blacks to join the Union Army.
The film will use all that as historical background, but at heart it is an action thriller with a powerful emotional core that involves Peter’s death-defying journey to escape his captors. Using onions to mask his scent from pursuing bloodhounds, and his strength and smarts to survive running barefoot through the swamps for 10 days, the tale takes a turn reminiscent of such survival tales as the Mel Gibson-directed Apocalypto.
“It was the first viral image of the brutality of slavery that the world saw,” Fuqua told Deadline. “Which is interesting, when you put it into perspective with today and social media and what the world is seeing, again. You can’t fix the past, but you can remind people of the past and I think we have to, in an accurate, real way. We all have to look for a brighter future for us all, for everyone. That’s one of the most important reasons to do things right now, is show our history. We have to face our truth before we can move forward.”
If you’ve been following Smith’s career, you may recall he turned down the titular role in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), a role that eventually went to Jamie Foxx. In a 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Smith revealed that he and Tarantino didn’t see eye-to-eye on the film’s central theme and Smith was cautious about the film’s gratuitous violence.
“I wanted to make that movie so badly, but I felt the only way was, it had to be a love story, not a vengeance story,” Smith said at the time.
Emancipation is an action-thriller and will likely also contain quite a bit of violence I’m assuming, but it appears Fuqua and Smith had a lengthy conversation about the vision and it’s something they both agree on. For one, Fuqua wants to make sure Gordon is not portrayed “as just a victim.”
Fuqua added, regarding Smith’s involvement:
“It’s more in that wheelhouse than 12 Years a Slave, because he’s a man of action. He takes his destiny in his own hands and he does something about it. For me, there has always been this thing about most films I’ve seen about slaves. It always involves being saved by someone else, as opposed to…how I feel about it, is he would do everything possible to escape, to be free and then to get back to his family. I haven’t seen this film, this character, before. Will Smith is perfect for it. He has all the qualities to do it. He’s at a place in his life where, we know Will’s charming and a talented actor and that he’s physical and we’ve seen him go really deep in other films. When I sat down with Will, we both talked about taking our skill sets to another level for this one, and giving ourselves completely to it in an honest and fair, true way. An actor’s portrayal as close as the film could get to this world. For me, it’s probably going to be one of the most important films I will make in my life. That’s how I really feel about it. It sticks with me, I think about it all the time. I’ve been quietly watching the news to see what is going on in the world. I watch, before I speak on a lot of these things. The best weapon I have, and those in our business have, is our art form. We get a chance to entertain, enlighten and educate through our art form. This one says it all. It should be timeless, a film that is more appropriate today than ever before and necessary.”
Production for Emancipation is expected to begin early 2021.