Will Smith is back in Oscar race: Apple sets ‘Emancipation’ for December release [WATCH]

Those who bet on a late-breaking addition to the awards season calendar were rewarded on Monday as Apple Original Films confirmed its plans to release Antoine Fuqua’s new film “Emancipation” with star Will Smith before the year’s end. The historical drama arrives in theaters on December 2 before dropping on Apple TV+ on December 9.

The studio, which won Best Picture this year with “CODA,” was long rumored to potentially shake up the race, either with “Emancipation,” Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon,” or Martin Scorsese’s “The Killers of the Flower Moon.” But it’s “Emancipation” that will represent Apple’s biggest Oscar hopes in 2023, despite the well-documented controversy surrounding Smith, who won Best Actor this year after slapping comedian Chris Rock during the Oscars broadcast for a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

“Will Smith is a great guy. I was with him for a couple of years, making this movie. He is a wonderful person, an amazing partner and he did an amazing job on this movie,” Fuqua said of his star in an interview published by Deadline on Monday alongside the “Emancipation” trailer. ”Chris Rock’s a good guy, I know Chris as well…and I just pray it works out for them as friends, and we can move forward.”

Before the infamous Oscars slap, many expected “Emancipation” to be a top-level awards contender, with Smith pegged as an extremely early favorite to land another Best Actor nomination. (Smith won Best Actor this year for “King Richard.”) Early anecdotal buzz also suggested the drama – about a runaway slave who joins the Union army – was Fuqua’s best film.

“Really, I was always saying that, as a filmmaker, you want your work out there, especially something this important,” Fuqua said about the decision to release the film this year. “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.”

The news of the 2022 release comes after “Emancipation” screened on Saturday in Washington D.C. as part of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Legislative Conference. There, Smith and Fuqua introduced the film, with Smith explaining his decision to star. “Throughout my career, I’ve turned down many films that were set in slavery,” Smith said at the screening. “I never wanted to show us like that. And then this picture came along. And this is not a film about slavery. This is a film about freedom. This is a film about resilience. This is a film about faith.”

In “Emancipation,” Smith plays a man eventually known as “Whipped Peter,” a slave whose scarred back was photographed after his escape. The images were widely distributed around the world and helped the abolitionist movement.

“This is a film about the heart of a man — what could be called the first viral image,” Smith said on Saturday. “Cameras had just been created, and the image of ‘Whipped Peter’ went around the world. It was a rallying cry against slavery, and this was a story that exploded and blossomed in my heart that I wanted to be able to deliver to you in a way that only Antoine Fuqua could deliver.”

In the wake of the slap, Smith was condemned and vilified. He resigned from the academy and was later banned from attending academy events – including the Oscars itself – for a period of 10 years. He can still receive Oscar nominations, however, so he would be eligible for Best Actor for “Emancipation” should voters deem his performance worthy of that recognition. 

Smith has kept a low profile in the months since the slap, but he did release a video apology over the summer where he said, in part, “I know it was confusing, I know it was shocking. But I promise you, I am deeply devoted and committed to putting light and love, and joy into the world. And, you know, if you hang on, I promise we’ll be able to be friends again.”

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