LOS ANGELES — While filming “Liberty,” Will Smith was inspired by the word “sacred motivation” routinely written on the front page of a screenplay. But in recent months, the Oscar-winning actress has leaned even more on that statement as she struggles to deal with backlash against her Oscar slap and her expulsion from the ceremony.
“As long as you can place and center yourself in your divine purpose, you can resist anything and everything,” Smith said of the words that greeted him when he took on the lead role in Antoine Fuqua’s now in theaters “Emancipation.” and will be available to watch on Apple TV+ on Friday. Smith said “divine motivation” has become a theme for him and his fellow actors.
The film was a tough one, wrapping up months before Smith stepped onto the Oscars stage and slapped host Chris Rock for a joke he made about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith. Inspired by an iconic 1863 photograph of “Whipped Peter”‘s scarred back, Smith stars as Peter, a man trying to escape slavery while using his wits to escape slave hunters and the daring alligator-infested swamps of Louisiana in his quest for freedom. .
Photos of “Whipped Peter” were taken during a Union Army medical examination, first published in Harper’s Weekly. A painting known as “The Scourged Back” showed the numerous shattered scars of whips brought by his enslavers on Peter’s bare back. Photography contributed to the growing opposition to slavery.
Smith said his character taught him a lesson in overcoming adversity after facing reprimands, memes, and a 10-year Oscar participation ban. The “slap” apparently overshadowed the biggest turning point in his career that came later in the night: He won his first Academy Award for best actor for “King Richard.”
The reaction shook Smith, but eventually Peter helped him get back on track.
“Peter, these last few months have definitely helped me re-establish within myself what my purpose in this world is,” Smith said in his first interview since the Oscars. After accepting his ban, he apologized repeatedly for his behavior.
Normally, “Emancipation” could get Smith some serious Oscar buzz. He is still eligible for nominations and awards, but cannot take them personally. In response to the backlash for “The Slap,” Smith hopes audiences will continue to watch Fuqua’s movie.
“This movie was very tiring. Literally everyone had to suffer a huge amount of pain over what you saw on that screen,” Smith said. “So my biggest wish, and I think I can talk about my biggest fear, is that my crew is punished for my actions. I’m dating this movie that I love and definitely want my people to get their flowers.”
Fuqua knows Smith made a mistake, but hopes viewers can get over it. The director believes that the story about Peter’s quest for freedom, his struggle to get back to his family, and acting as a catalyst in highlighting the terrible side of slavery in “Liberty” is much bigger than “The Slap.”
“Peter’s story is so inspiring, especially as a Black. “As Blacks alone, we go through so many things every day,” said Fuqua, known for directing “Training Day,” “Equalizer,” and “The Magnificent Seven.” He said that his new film deals with how there are some elements of racism that still persist in America today.
“For me, that’s a mistake,” Fuqua said of Smith to hit The Rock on live television. “I hope everyone can move on and God bless everyone. But we are talking about 400 years of brutality.”
Playing Peter’s wife, Dodienne, Bingwa relies on Smith’s ability to keep moving forward while facing challenges.
“It fits with the movie. I guess it’s a tough time,” said Bingwa, who hoped the audience would learn more about Peter’s determination to return home after making a promise. “I don’t want to speak for Will, but he’s been an inspiration to so many people for a very long time. I love seeing him with his head held high. Everyone can learn from their own experience. I just love the way you get it in your chin, you put it on and you move on. We’re all human.”
While promoting the film, Smith hosted special screenings for many influential figures, including Rihanna, Tyler Perry, Dave Chappelle, LeBron James, and Los Angeles Lakers teammates, as well as students at Morehouse College. He garnered a great deal of support from these individuals and gave him some sigh of relief.
Each time Smith returned to Peter’s story, he became more empowered to share his character’s journey.
“I feel very comfortable in this current situation with this project, with these people,” he said. “I feel cleansed. I feel purified and transformed in many ways. And one of the lessons learned from Peter is this: ‘Suffering leads to salvation.’ That’s why I’m comfortable taking my medication.”