Will Smith Vehicle ‘Emancipation’ Is Officially Crashing This Oscar Season


Will Smith may not be able to attend next year’s Oscars, but that won’t stop Apple TV+ from releasing his new awards vehicle in time for consideration. The streamer confirmed on Monday that Emancipation, Antoine Fuqua‘s portrait of a man who escapes from slavery in 19th-century Louisiana, will be released in theaters on December 2 before hitting the platform a week later. (You can also watch the teaser below.) The news comes on the heels of great speculation that the streamer would surprise-drop one of its upcoming blockbusters before the end of the year, with rumors previously circulating for both Martin Scorsese‘s Killers of the Flower Moon and Ridley Scott‘s Napoleon. (We can now safely assume the pair will be dated for 2023.)

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Emancipation had long been considered a strong Oscar-season contender for Apple, though the rollout was disrupted abruptly at this year’s Oscars, when Smith slapped presenter Chris Rock mid-broadcast on stage, and resigned from the Academy  hereafter. The actor, who won this year’s best-actor Oscar for his towering turn in King Richard, was also banned from attending any Academy events, including the awards ceremony, for the next decade, and has issued several apologies over the last few months. 

Smith could still be nominated and even win for Emancipation, though his diminished reputation in Hollywood will make for a steep climb. As for the rest of the movie, of course, it’ll depend on how strong it really is. At minimum, Emancipation bolsters a relatively thin awards slate for reigning best picture champ Apple, which saw potential contenders including The Greatest Beer Run Ever and Causeway premiere to a muted reaction out of the Toronto International Film Festival. Emancipation has a sprawling ensemble cast that includes Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Gilbert Owuor, and Mustafa Shakir.

“As a filmmaker, you want your work out there, especially something this important,” Fuqua told Deadline in an interview about Monday, of the decision to release the film amid the Smith controversy. “It was Apple, behind the scenes, they were pushing that as well, trying to navigate through the waters. They never stopped talking about releasing the film, and when would be best strategically. Apple would call me often, with Will, and I have to say Apple has been amazing through this whole film.”

An advance screening of Emancipation took place over the weekend, hosted together with the NAACP during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 51st Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. Fuqua, Smith and Mary Elliott, curator of American Slavery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, also took part in a panel discussion about the film moderated by Angela Rye.

Inspired by the “Whipped Peter” photos that came from a Union Army medical examination, and which debuted in Harper’s Weekly in 1863, Emancipation follows Smith’s Peter on the run from hunters and through the Louisiana swamps in his quest for freedom. Fuqua, whose Training Day won Denzel Washington the 2002 Oscar for best actor, told Deadline he believes this film may be his best: “I said when I finished that it was my strongest piece of work and can certainly say it’s my most important film. I’ll leave it to everyone else to judge, but I feel there’s a lot of growth in the work.”

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