Emancipation director Antoine Fuqua on his slavery drama and the aftermath of the Oscars: “I’ve never met anyone like Will Smith”

Antoine Fuqua was just a kid when he was shot dead on the streets of Pittsburgh. But the memory is spectacularly vivid. “I was 15,” says the 56-year-old director of the Oscar winner training day. “I remember running down an alley and I remember it was raining and I remember hearing a voice say ‘run.’ I don’t know where it came from. But I remember every detail of those moments. Every detail.”

Listening to Fuqua describe what happened is like watching a sequence from one of his own neo-noir films. “The bullets hitting the telephone poles. The splintering. The sound,” he says. “The rain on the guy who shot. The glasses he wore. The water hit his glasses. Gun in hand.” Each still is associated with a gesture: Fuqua’s hands spread wide for the bullets, his knuckles slide past his eyes for the rain, his finger pulls an imaginary trigger. “Then I remember walking into a shop and I saw the blood hitting the floor and I remember thinking about my family.” He also thought about his funeral, the scent of flowers rising in his head the nose. And he thought of God. “Sometimes you see God in the worst moments,” he says.

Fuqua survived filming, of course, and he once dubbed the moment his “big break” for taking it from the streets to the movies. And the faith he found in that near-death moment has become the lifeblood of all his films, perhaps most prominently in his electrifying 2001 crime thriller training day, in which the world is divided into wolves and sheep. Denzel Washington won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of corrupt, insane LAPD narcotics officer Alonzo Harris, who commits a heinous litany of crimes while wearing a chunky crucifix around his neck. The first note Washington — a frequent Fuqua collaborator and a devout Christian — made on his screenplay was a line from the Bible: “For the wages of sin is death.” Fuqua’s subsequent films from the historical adventure King Arthur and the sports drama Southpawto the west The glory seven and the Equalizer vigilante movies all allude to religion. And in his new film, the beautiful, the brutal emancipationFaith is an integral part of what keeps Will Smith’s character, a slave on the run, alive.

“If the heart of the film is love and faith, then I’m interested,” Fuqua murmurs in his deep timbre. Sitting in an armchair in the middle of a London hotel room, he is a picture of elegance and composure in a black suit, a midnight blue turtleneck and a pair of Derby shoes as elegant as Alonzo’s Chevy Monte Carlo. “I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you if there wasn’t a god or something bigger than me.”

Ethan Hawke, who co-starred training day as a doe-eyed newbie caught up in Alonzo’s twisted antics, he once said he views all of Fuqua’s films as “a collective cry against authority.” Fuqua nods. “Ethan is right. It comes out unconsciously. They all come back to injustice, to people being stepped on and being abused. I grew up in a tougher area so I saw it happen to my parents. people who take advantage of it. I do not like it at all. Whether it is an authority or a bully. I don’t like bullies.”

emancipation is full of the worst kind of tyrants. It is inspired by the story behind the 1863 image of Whipped Peter, which exposed the appalling cruelty of American slavery and became a defining image for the abolitionist cause. Smith plays the escaped slave in the photo, who is shown facing the camera with his back covered in keloid scars from relentless lashes. Smith disappears into the role. We no longer see him as a movie star; He’s a man on a mission for freedom in the American Civil War. He defiantly glares at snarling dogs and spitting slave owners, wades through swamps and fights alligators on his way to join Lincoln’s army in Baton Rouge. Sometimes several minutes go by without any dialogue, moments when Smith is even more powerful, his jaw clenched and his eyes hard. In his first post-Oscar smack film, he exquisitely captures the dignity we see in the photograph in Peter, with his chin up.

“Will has a lot of dignity,” says Fuqua. “He’s a great person. I’ve never met anyone like him.” The director was stunned to see Smith smack Chris Rock onstage at the Academy Awards in March after the comedian made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. “I was shocked,” he says, “because that’s not the will I know. But there is a lot of pressure in everyone’s life. It’s hard sometimes being such a celebrity. Sometimes the human comes out and it doesn’t come out right. I hope Will and Chris can find some peace there. They are good people, they are. They’re not bad people at all… and it’s a struggle, right? There is no such thing as a perfect person. Will was very sorry. I spoke to him afterwards and he was in tears. He just hurt you know? We have to be careful. It’s nice to joke about each other, but sometimes we all need to be a little more sensitive.”

Will Smith disappears as Peter in ‘Emancipation’

(Apple)

Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, and Fuqua says he can relate to the strong emotions surrounding hair loss. “I know that wasn’t what Jada had, but I’ve had someone in my life recently who was diagnosed with cancer,” he says. “They lose all their hair and a lot of things happen and sometimes if you don’t know it and make a joke about it, it can hurt more than you can imagine. Celebrities have the same problems as many other people. They go through their own mental, personal anguish that you never see.”

After the confrontation at the Academy Awards, Washington rushed to Smith’s side. He later spoke through tears as he received his Oscar for Best Actor King RichardSmith revealed what Washington had told him: “Be careful in your highest moment, then the devil will come for you.” “It was perfect Denzel going and trying to put his arms around Will and say some words of wisdom to him,” Fuqua says, making a hug gesture with his hands wide. “This is Denzel. We talk a lot about faith when we’re together. More than anything else.”

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The moment Will Smith beat Chris Rock at the Oscars

(AFP/Getty)

Fuqua certainly needed a little faith in the making of emancipation. The film’s production was plagued with problems from the start. It was originally intended to be filmed in Georgia, but was moved to Louisiana in protest of the state’s restrictive election laws, which primarily affected communities of color. Then Hurricane Ida hit, devastating the area and further delaying filming. It was also filmed under strict Covid restrictions in 2021 and it hit 40 degrees every day. “I’m still recovering,” Fuqua says with a very small laugh. “I have PTSD talking to you about it. It was supposed to be a four month shoot and we ended up shooting for eight months. Apple had to have ice jackets brought in for everyone to cool off. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Anything that could be thrown at us was thrown at us. One night my trailer caught fire while I was filming on a real plantation.” How did that happen? “Yes. Exactly,” he says with a sad, knowing look. He seems to have his own theories. “It was really tough.”



I’m only scratching the surface of the ugliness of slavery

The film’s theme took its toll on Fuqua and the cast; he says he was on the verge of tears most of the time and had to shower every day right after filming. “I just felt terrible,” he says. “Had to wash it off. But we had therapy for everyone. And it was the crew and the black and white actors that kept me going. After the hurricane, many people [working on the film] were homeless and still came to work every day. When you see people coming together to tell a story, it pulls you through.”

Fuqua directs Smith on the set of “Emancipation”

(Apple)

The film, like all of Fuqua’s work, is packed with unrelenting, traumatic violence. A slave’s legs are torn to shreds by a dog. Another’s cheek is branded while the heads of the fugitives are raised on stakes above the Confederate camps. “I don’t think you can shy away from violence when telling a story about slavery,” he says. “There’s no PG-13 in there. But I didn’t want it to be exploitative either – those are all facts. There’s a great saying, I think it was Maya Angelou, she said, ‘It’s hard not to know. Knowing is more difficult.’ The more I studied slavery, the more I couldn’t even scratch the surface of its ugliness.” Im emancipationFuqua has created a place akin to hell on earth – Confederate camps where men, both black and white, lose their limbs to disease and mass graves overcrowd and bodies rot in the hot sun.

Fuqua also believes showing the violence is important to prevent history from repeating itself. On the morning we speak, Kanye West was banned from Twitter for posting a picture of a swastika in a Star of David. Fuqua has been following the rapper’s latest comments about Hitler and recalls saying in 2018 that slavery sounded like it was “a choice.” “I just hope he gets the help he needs,” Fuqua says of the artist, who suffers from bipolar disorder. “’Four hundred years of slavery is a choice’ is a ridiculous statement. I don’t know why he would say that. It’s just not possible. What person would want to be in bondage and have their family ripped from them and treated like less than an animal?” Such experiences are incredibly difficult to process, which is why Fuqua wanted to create a disorientation from the first moment of the film. In the opening scene, an expansive aerial view over the swamps makes 1860s Louisiana look like another planet. “If you look at it, you could be on Mars,” he says, pointing into the ether. “And yet this is our world. We did that to each other not too long ago.”

Emancipation hits theaters and Apple TV+ on Friday, December 9th

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/emancipation-will-smith-review-release-antoine-fuqua-b2242090.html Emancipation director Antoine Fuqua on his slavery drama and the aftermath of the Oscars: “I’ve never met anyone like Will Smith”

JOE HERNANDEZ

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