LOS ANGELES -- While filming “Emancipation,” Will Smith routinely drew inspiration from the words “sacred motivation” that were written on the front page of a script. But the Oscar winner heavily leaned on the phrase even more in recent months, as he tried to overcome the backlash to his Oscars slap and banishment from the ceremony.
“It’s like when you can locate and center yourself in your divine purpose, you can withstand anything and everything,” Smith said of the phrase that greeted him when he took on the lead role in Antoine Fuqua's “Emancipation,” which is currently in theaters and will be available to stream Friday on Apple TV+. “Sacred motivation” became like a theme for him and his castmates, Smith said.
The film, completed months before Smith strode onto the Oscars stage and slapped presenter Chris Rock for a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, was a grueling shoot. Inspired by an iconic 1863 photo of the scarred back of “Whipped Peter,” Smith portrays the character Peter — a man who attempts to escape slavery while he uses his wits to dodge slave hunters and brave alligator-infested Louisiana swamps in his quest for freedom.
The photos of “Whipped Peter” were taken during a Union Army medical examination that first appeared in Harper’s Weekly. An image known as “The Scourged Back” showed countless mutilated whip marks on Peter’s bare back that were delivered by his enslavers. The photo contributed to the growing opposition to slavery.
Smith said his character taught him a lesson in overcoming adversity after he faced condemnation, memes and a 10-year Oscars attendance ban. The “slap” seemingly overshadowed his own biggest career milestone, which came later in the night: winning his first-ever Academy Award, best actor for “King Richard.”
The backlash rocked Smith, but Peter ultimately helped steer him back on track too.
“Peter has absolutely helped me through these last few months, just reestablishing within myself in what my purpose is in this world,” Smith said in a recent interview, one of his first since the Oscars. He has repeatedly apologized for his behavior after accepting his ban.
Normally, “Emancipation” might earn Smith some serious Oscars buzz. He’s still eligible for nominations and awards, but can’t personally accept them. Given backlash to “The Slap,” Smith mainly hopes that audiences will still watch Fuqua’s film.
“This movie was so grueling. Literally across the board, everybody had to devote a hefty amount of suffering to what you see on that screen,” Smith said. “So my greatest wish, and I guess I can talk about my greatest fear, is that my team would be penalized for my actions. I’m out with this film that I love and strictly want my people to get their flowers.”
Fuqua knows Smith made a mistake, but he hopes audiences can move past it. The director believes the story about Peter’s search for freedom, fighting to get back to his family and being a catalyst in highlighting the horrific side of slavery in “Emancipation” is much bigger than “The Slap.”
“Peter’s story is so inspiring, especially as a Black man. We go through a lot of things daily, just being Black,” said Fuqua, known for directing “Training Day,” “Equalizer” films and “The Magnificent Seven.” He said his new film tackles how certain elements of racism in America that still occur today.
“For me, it’s a mistake,” Fuqua said of Smith striking Rock on live television. “Hopefully everybody can get back on track and God bless everyone. But we’re talking about 400 years of brutality.”
Bingwa, who plays Peter’s wife Dodienne, credits Smith’s ability to endure the adversity while pushing forward through it.
“It’s in line with the film. I imagine it’s been a tough period,” said Bingwa, who hopes audiences can learn more about Peter’s determination to return home after making a promise. “I don’t want to speak on Will’s behalf, but he’s been an inspiration to so many for so long. I love seeing him with his head held high. Everyone can learn from his experience. I just love the way you took it on the chin, you’re wearing it and walking forward. We’re all human.”
While promoting the film, Smith held private screenings for several influential figures including Rihanna, Tyler Perry, Dave Chappelle, LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers teammates along with students at Morehouse College. He garnered a great amount of support from those individuals, giving him somewhat a sigh of relief.
Each time Smith harkened back to Peter’s story, the more he became empowered to share his character’s journey.
“I feel very comfortable in this current situation with this project, with these people,” he said. “I feel cleansed. I feel purified and transformed in many ways. And as one of the lessons from Peter is, ‘Suffering leads to salvation.’ So I am comfortable taking my medicine."