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The “Emancipation” of Will Smith

Before Apple shot “Emancipation”, it was thrilled to cast Will Smith in the leading role. The film is set in the Civil War era, and it is based on the true story of a slave known as “Whipped Peter”, who escaped to the North and joined the Union military to fight against his former captors. The film itself was shot in Louisiana, and despite delays caused by COVID and various hurricanes, it wrapped filming in February of this year. That was roughly one month before Will Smith walked onstage and slapped Chris Rock across the face for making a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Now, Apple is in a bit of a bind.

“Emancipation” was meant to be an Oscar contender. Apple intended to follow up last year’s Best Picture winner “CODA” with another film that would solidify its status as a studio that consistently churns out Oscar contenders. But seeing as how Will Smith is banned from attending any events related to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for the next decade, Apple does not know what to do. The studio has spent 120 million USD on a movie meant to garner awards attention. Even if the film is fantastic from an artistic standpoint, no one knows whether it can overcome the shadow of “the slap”. Will Smith’s baggage is going to be costly not just for Smith and Apple, but also for the legacy of Whipped Peter. The severe scarring of the slave-turned-soldier became a rallying cry for Union soldiers during the Civil War. This man’s legacy deserves to be celebrated, but how can Apple do that now?

The half-life of a slap

The New York Times recently asked Apple what it planned to do with the film, but so far, Apple has refused to comment about anything surrounding the film. There are no good options in front of them. They can refuse to release the film and eat over 120 million USD spent on it. They could release the film and hope that the spectre of the slap is not enough to overshadow the film’s content. Or they could reshoot many, if not most, of the film’s scenes with another actor. Any of these moves will garner criticism, and Apple is guaranteed to lose money no matter what they choose. Perhaps more importantly, their brand could take a hit no matter what they choose.

After Smith’s awards season success for last year’s “King Richard”, many were already discussing “Emancipation” as premium Oscar bait because of its lead actor and subject matter. Screenings of the film have garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews, according to our Apple. But given Smith’s actions, its chances have diminished considerably, if not entirely. That said, Smith could still technically be nominated for his work in the film, but the chances of that happening are slim to none, no matter how transcendent his performance ends up being. Moreover, according to the Times, there are people in the industry who believe that releasing “Emancipation” along with other Oscar contenders this year will only anger academy voters who were embarrassed by Mr Smith’s actions. Releasing the film would force the Academy to remember and repeatedly address Mr Smith’s actions; it wants nothing to do with that. Apple and the Academy both want to protect their brands, and for now, Mr Smith is toxic to both. The one thing we know for sure: both entities are going to do their best to protect their respective brands, and the film itself will almost definitely suffer for it.