EXCLUSIVE: Bidding is above $75 million on the first major property at the Cannes Film Festival virtual market. Warner Bros, Apple, MGM, Lionsgate and Universal are among the studios in the mix for world rights on Emancipation. The film package will have Antoine Fuqua direct Will Smith in a Willam N. Collage-scripted action thriller about the harrowing escape of Peter, a runaway slave forced to outwit cold-blooded hunters and the unforgiving swamps of Louisiana on a tortuous journey North where he joined the Union Army.
The filmmakers have been working on this one for two years, but there is an eerie parallel to the footage of George Floyd that sparked protests across the country and reforms that have spread beyond policing and reaching even the corridors of Hollywood. The story of Peter was also fueled by an indelible image, after he showed his bare back during an Army medical examination. The photos taken of the scars from a whipping delivered by an overseer on the plantation got published and seen around the world in 1863. The picture gave the abolitionist cause indisputable proof of the cruelty of slavery in America, and when the photo reached around the world, legend has it that it made countries like France refuse to buy cotton from the South. It solidified the cause of abolitionists and prompted many free blacks to join the Union Army.
When Deadline broke the story of this project, Fuqua noted that the photograph was “the first viral image of the brutality of slavery that the world saw,” which is interesting, when you put it into perspective with today and social media and what the world is seeing, again. You can’t fix the past, but you can remind people of the past and I think we have to, in an accurate, real way. We all have to look for a brighter future for us all, for everyone. That’s one of the most important reasons to do things right now, is show our history. We have to face our truth before we can move forward.”
The film will use all that as historical background, but at heart it is an action thriller with a powerful emotional core that involves Peter’s death-defying journey to escape his captors. Using onions to mask his scent from pursuing bloodhounds, and his strength and smarts to survive running barefoot through the swamps for 10 days, the tale takes a turn reminiscent of such survival tales as the Mel Gibson-directed Apocalypto. Smith, James Lassiter and Jon Mone will serve in a producorial capacity through Westbrook Studios, with McFarland Entertainment’s Joey McFarland and Escape Artists’ Todd Black. Fuqua will executive produce under his Fuqua Films banner, alongside Cliff Roberts. McFarland found the story and engaged the writer to draft the tale and then brought it to Fuqua and Smith.
The intention is to begin production early 2021. CAA Media Finance, which arranged the financing for the film, is brokering the U.S. rights deal while FilmNation Entertainment is handling the international component of the sale.
Fuqua sparked to the script and felt he had to to it, as soon as he read it. He and Smith have been plotting and visualizing what the film would look like for some time now so they were able to paint a fully formed picture of the film to bidders who included Apple, MGM and Netflix.
“It hit my heart and my soul in so many ways that are impossible to convey but I think you understand,” Fuqua told Deadline. “We’re watching some of the feeling that I had, in the streets right now. There’s sadness, there’s anger, there’s love, faith and hope as well because of what I see young people doing today. They’re doing all the heavy lifting now. Black, white, brown, yellow, you name it. They’re out in the street, they’re young, and they’re standing up for their future. That’s important to see, and the most hopeful thing that I’m seeing, that they’re not going to stand for it anymore. I had all those feelings with I read the script. As a filmmaker, everything I’ve done up to this point in my life, and not just filmmaking but living as a black man in this country, having my own issues, and then having children and a family and being married. It hit home, because this is at heart a film about family, about love. Faith, the idea that Peter never gave up and he fought tooth and nail to get back to his family. That is an important story to tell. The slavery and the brutality, most people are familiar with it. People who care to know about it are familiar with it. I found it brutal and I found it entertaining in a way because of the journey it took me on, Peter’s journey. What’s amazing about it is, this is based on fact and deep research.” That includes, Fuqua said, diaries that Peter kept.
Warner Bros is currently making King Richard with Smith in the lead.
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