'Emancipation' director says film's release 'is bigger' than Will Smith's Oscars slap

Will Smith's first feature film Emancipation will be released eight months after he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars.
Will Smith's first feature film Emancipation will be released eight months after he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images) (PATRICK T. FALLON via Getty Images)

Will Smith's new film Emancipation hits theaters in two weeks, which for a star of his caliber, typically means he would be on an all-out press blitz right now ahead of awards season. Obviously, the media rollout is a bit more complicated given the fact Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars months ago and is banned from Academy events for a decade. Emancipation director Antoine Fuqua spoke to Vanity Fair and said this movie is more important than the drama surrounding its star.

"The film to me is bigger than that moment. Four hundred years of slavery is bigger than one moment. My hope is that people will see it that way and watch the movie and be swept away with the great performance by Will and all the real hard work that the whole crew did," Fuqua shared. (Watch the latest trailer for the film, which was released in the wake of Fuqua's interview, below.)

However, Fuqua was stunned by the Oscars incident after spending two years with Smiwth making the Civil War drama.

"I haven't met a nicer human being. I'm being honest about it. He was kind to everyone on the set. Will would go around and hug and shake hands — we had 300-something extras and military. Marines. We had to stop Will from doing that because of COVID," the director explained.

"So, I saw a different person than that one moment in time, and so my reaction was that particular moment is very foreign to me when it comes to Will Smith. I have nothing but amazing things to say about Will Smith, really genuinely," Fuqua continued. "You can ask anybody that worked on the movie, they’ll tell you the same. Nicest person I’ve ever met in my life. Chris Rock — I know Chris — Chris is a good guy too. I've spent time with Chris, and I think it’s an unfortunate event and I hope we can move forward and get past it."

After "the slap," it was unclear how Smith's career would be impacted. Hours after he hit Rock in the face for making a joke about wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, the actor won his first ever Oscar. But production on a Netflix project and Bad Boys 4 were reportedly paused and slowed down. Apple TV+ stayed mum on whether Emancipation would be released as planned.

"Of course I wanted people to see the film. My conversation was always, 'Isn't 400 years of slavery, of brutality, more important than one bad moment?' We were in Hollywood, and there's been some really ugly things that have taken place, and we've seen a lot of people get awards that have done some really nasty things," Fuqua told the magazine. "So I think Apple considered all those things, and we discussed a lot of those things. Then a decision was made by the people in charge of distribution and the money at Apple — and I'm grateful, I'm really grateful.

Smith answered some questions via email for the Vanity Fair profile, but declined to answer one about the slap and its effect on the movie. The actor has publicly apologized twice to Rock, been photographed in public a handful of times, but overall, has stayed out of the spotlight.

Emancipation is Smith's follow-up to King Richard, which won him the Oscar in March for Best Actor. Smith plays Peter, known to history as "Whipped Peter," an escaped slave-turned-Union Army soldier who is immortalized in 19th century pictures that reveal the scars on his back from a brutal whipping.

Emancipation hits theaters on Dec. 2 and streams on Apple TV+ the following week.

MORE: Will Smith breaks silence on Oscars slap in new video