Will Smith’s Emancipation press tour rolled through Los Angeles on Wednesday as the Oscar-winning actor turned up to support the Apple Original Films’ release in a showing that marked Smith’s first major red carpet appearance since March’s controversial Oscar telecast.
Smith hit the carpet outside Westwood’s Regency Village Theatre just after at 7 p.m., joined by wife Jada Pinkett Smith and children Trey, Jaden and Willow. He received cheers from the crush of photographers as he stepped on the carpet, responding with a hearty, “What’s the deal? What’s the deal?” Smith then spent a good chunk of time posing for photos with the cast and top Apple executives Jamie Erlicht, Eddy Cue and Zack Van Amburg before making his way down the line by generously giving time to each outlet.
Though filmmaker Antoine Fuqua was absent — he’s currently in Italy filming Equalizer 3 with Denzel Washington — Smith was joined by their team of collaborators including Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Grant Harvey, Jayson Warner Smith, Jabbar Lewis, Austin Alexander, Clyde R. JOnes, Jeremiah Friedlander, Jordyn McIntosh, Melissa Lehman, Merah Benoit, the film’s writer William N. Collage, McFarland Entertainment producer Joey McFarland, Westbrook Studios producer Jon Mone, Escape Artists producer Todd Black and more. Fellow guests who turned up to show support included Tiffany Haddish, Da Baby, Matt Barnes and others.
Based on a true story, Emancipation follows Peter (Smith), who runs away from his plantation in search of his family, outwitting cold-blooded hunters and surviving the Louisiana swamps along the way. Peter eventually joins the Union Army. During a medical examination, his bare back, which had scars on it from a near-fatal whipping at the hands of his former plantation’s overseer, was photographed. The Independent published the photo, undoubtedly proving the cruelty and barbarity of slavery in America.
“When I took this film, I envisioned the potential service it could be to modern social conversation. I thought it would be a necessary reminder of some of the roads we had gone down as a country in the past to potentially avert any of those similar paths,” Smith told The Hollywood Reporter as he made his way down the line. “To have a movie like this in this time for me, and even this time in my life, is poetic perfection.”
Though he has long talked about his desire to avoid films about slavery, Smith said he thinks of Emancipation as a film about freedom. “The realization for me that this was not a movie about slavery — when I read it, this was a movie about freedom,” he told a group of press. “This was a movie about emancipation. I had seen the picture, but as I got to know Peter and understand some of the experiences of Peter and the way he was able to sustain faith in the heart of the greatest imaginable human atrocities… That’s what attracted me to Peter, and I wanted to be able to study and learn and to know how to do that myself.”
Following the carpet, Smith was joined inside the theater by co-stars Charmaine Bingwa and Ben Foster to introduce the film. The actor celebrated their “spectacular” work in Emancipation and said they both “changed me as an actor and elevated me as a human in the time that we spent together.”
“This project was an absolute monster of a difficult film to make. It was supposed to take three months, and after act of god after act of god, the film ended up taking seven. And the team at Apple never flinched, not one time,” Smith said. He continued: “I’ve worked everywhere in town, and you guys are the top of the top, I have to say. There were many days when the plug could have gotten pulled on this thing, and your devotion to bringing this story to your audience and to the world, I salute you.”
Director Fuqua joined the audience via video call to share some thoughts.
“I had to make this film. I knew it would take everything we got and then some to get it done. [But] there was something spiritual and moving about the film, just reading it off the page … about love, faith, family, freedom — it just had to be done,” he said. “There was no way we weren’t going to finish this film. The film was hard to make, but I think well worth it. Nobody ever abandoned ship, and they could’ve many times, through hurricanes and tornadoes and COVID and heat and alligators … But it’s been an incredible journey, and I want to thank everyone for going on the journey with us.”
The film will be released in select theaters on Dec. 2, followed by a global streaming debut on Dec. 9. While the fate of the film was in question in the wake of March’s Oscar telecast — Smith stormed the stage and slapped presenter Chris Rock after the comedian made a joke about Pinkett Smith — Apple and the filmmakers elected to push forward with the release.
Though tonight’s event was billed as the world premiere, there had been a string of smaller screenings in recent weeks in the lead-up to the global rollout, one that has been closely watched due to the Oscar dust-up. The first screening was held in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 1, in partnership with the NAACP during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 51st annual Legislative Conference. Weeks later, Smith joined an exclusive roster of guests in L.A. where Rihanna, ASAP Rocky, Tyler Perry, Kenya Barris, music producer Corey Smyth, celebrity stylists Fawn Boardley and writer-producer Esa Lewis, among others, watched the film.
One notable guest in the room that night was Dave Chappelle, who had joined Rock for a series of sold-out stand-up shows. In an Instagram post, Smith called it an “EPIC night!”
Earlier this month, Perry was present with Smith for another screening. This one went down in Atlanta and played host to “our next generation of filmmakers,” per Smith, including students from Morehouse College, Spellman College and Clark Atlanta University.
On the press front, Smith’s Emancipation tour revved up this week, first with an interview with Fox D.C. affiliate Good Day and interviewer Kevin McCarthy. Then, he sat opposite Trevor Noah on The Daily Show for his most extensive interview yet after the Oscars. Looking back on the March 27 show, Smith called it a “horrific night,” despite his best actor win for King Richard.
“I had to forgive myself for being human,” said Smith, who also taped an appearance opposite Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on their series All the Smoke for Showtime Basketball YouTube channel. “Trust me, there’s nobody that hates the fact that I’m human more than me. And just finding that space for myself within myself to be human. It’s like, I want — I’ve always wanted to be Superman. I’ve always wanted to swoop in and save the damsel in distress, you know. And I had to humble down, you know, and realize that I’m a flawed human, and I still have an opportunity to go out in the world and contribute in a way that fills my heart, and hopefully helps other people.”