Nearly a decade after passing on the title role in Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained, Will Smith has signed on to play a runaway slave in Antoine Fuqua‘s action thriller Emancipation, which is described as being closer in tone to Apocalypto and The Revenant than 12 Years a Slave.
Bill Collage (Exodus: Gods and Kings) wrote the script, which is based on the harrowing true story of Peter, a runaway slave whose “scourged back” went viral, in a sense, all the way back in 1863. Peter was a slave on a Louisiana plantation owned by John and Bridget Lyons, and he received a brutal whipping by one of the plantation’s overseers that nearly killed him. Peter decided to flee to the North, where he joined the Union Army. When Peter showed Army doctors his back during a medical examination, they took photos of his scars, and one photo known as “the scourged back” was published by the Independent in May 1863, and later by Harper Weekly in its July 4 issue.
The photo made its way around the world and was held up as proof of the cruelty of slavery in America. It solidified the abolitionist cause, and prompted many free Blacks to join the Union Army in order to fight racists in the South.
Smith will produce with his Westbrook Studios partners James Lassiter and Jon Mone, as well as Joey McFarland of McFarland Entertainment and Todd Black of Escape Artists. Fuqua will executive produce under his Fuqua Films banner alongside Cliff Roberts. CAA Media Finance arranged the financing for the film and will represent U.S. rights, while FilmNation Entertainment will handle international sales and introduce the package at the upcoming virtual Cannes market.
Fuqua first read the script nearly two years ago and has been working on the survival tale with Smith in secret for some time now, as the two of them figure out what the film will look like. Emancipation is less a traditional slavery drama than an action-packed chase movie, as Peter uses onions to mask his scent from hunters and their vicious bloodhounds while he makes his way barefoot through the treacherous swamps of Louisiana en route to freedom.
Fuqua told Deadline that the script “hit my heart and my soul in so many ways that are impossible to convey but I think you understand. We’re watching some of the feeling that I had, in the streets right now,” said Fuqua, noting the timeliness of the script. “There’s sadness, there’s anger, there’s love, faith and hope as well because of what I see young people doing today. They’re doing all the heavy lifting now. Black, white, brown, yellow, you name it. They’re out in the street, they’re young, and they’re standing up for their future. That’s important to see, and the most hopeful thing that I’m seeing, that they’re not going to stand for it anymore. I had all those feelings with I read the script,” said the director.
Fuqua explained that Collage drew from historical documents as well as Peter’s own diaries. “When I read the script, I thought, what an amazing journey — a heartbreaking and heart-racing film to have an opportunity to make. It’s rare to have a film that, on the entertainment side, has action that I’ve never seen before, real action, a guy running through the swamps for his life, wrestling with alligators and snakes, being chased by hounds, then joining the Civil War, fighting against the Confederate army. Not for revenge — it’s not a revenge film — but just to get home to his family, and he was fighting for freedom. Just on that basis alone, I thought the film should be made on an epic scale.”
Fuqua also addressed why he thought Smith was perfect for the project at this point in his career.
“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,” said Fuqua. “He’s focused, and is a serious actor and producer. Will cares about every aspect of it, from storyboards to the characters and the technique. Will’s a solid producer, which helps. And having an actor who gives his heart to a project like this…there’s a small group of guys like that. Denzel [Washington], Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Will, guys that dive in with you all the way. As a director, you cannot ask for more than to have guys like that with you.”
Fuqua also explained why he personally decided to tackle Emancipation.
“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,” said Fuqua.
The “scourged back” photo “was the first viral image of the brutality of slavery that the world saw. 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,” said Fuqua, who said he plans to shoot Emancipation “as soon as possible,” adding that it all “depends on Will’s schedule.”
Speaking of which, Smith was in the middle of shooting WB’s sports drama King Richard when production was suspended around the world due to the pandemic. He will resume shooting that movie as soon as he’s able, while Fuqua will get back to his Mark Wahlberg movie Infinite, which is in post-production. Emancipation is expected to start filming early next year according to Deadline, which broke the news.