EXCLUSIVE: In what I believe will become one of the hottest film packages for the upcoming Cannes Virtual Market, Antoine Fuqua will direct Will Smith in Emancipation, 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. There he joined the Union Army.
The thriller is based on a true story, fueled by an indelible image; when Peter showed his bare back during an Army medical examination, photos were taken of the scars from a whipping delivered by an overseer on the plantation owned by John and Bridget Lyons that nearly killed him. When the photo known as “the scourged back” was published by the Independent in May, 1863 and then in Harper’s Weekly‘s July 4 issue, it became indisputable proof of the cruelty and barbarity of slavery in America. The photo reached around the world, and 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.
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.
The intention is to begin production early 2021. Fuqua is completing the drama Infinite, while Smith was in the process of shooting King Richard when production was halted by the coronavirus pandemic. They will complete those projects before plunging into the slavery tale. CAA Media Finance, which arranged the financing for the film, will represent U.S. rights, and FilmNation Entertainment is representing international sales when the package is introduced at the virtual Cannes market.
I have been chasing this down for a month, and got Fuqua to discuss the project, and its relevance to current events.
“It was the first viral image of the brutality of slavery that the world saw,” Fuqua told me. “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.”
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.
“It’s almost two years now from when I first read the script,” he told Deadline. “It hit my heart and my soul in so many ways that are impossible to convey but I think you understand. 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,” he said. “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.
“The writer, Bill Collage, really went deep into it,” Fuqua said. “Historical documents and also information from Peter’s own diaries that he kept. It’s based on historical fact. When I read the script, I thought, what an amazing journey, a heartbreaking and heart-racing film to have an opportunity to make. It’s rare to have a film that, on the entertainment side, has action that I’ve never seen before, real action, a guy running through the swamps for his life, wrestling with alligators and snakes, being chased by hounds, then joining the Civil War, fighting against the Confederate army. Not for revenge – it’s not a revenge film – but just to get home to his family, and he was fighting for freedom. Just on that basis alone, I thought the film should be made on an epic scale.”
Emancipation is a different rendering than memorable slavery tales like the Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, which also showed the brutality of slavery from another vantage point. Fuqua wanted to make a different film, and felt this one addressed an appalling historical injustice with the propulsion of man against nature narrative of films like Apocalypto.
“It’s more in that wheelhouse than 12 Years a Slave, because he’s a man of action,” Fuqua said. “He takes his destiny in his own hands and he does something about it. For me, there has always been this thing about most films I’ve seen about slaves. It always involves being saved by someone else, as opposed to…how I feel about it, is he would do everything possible to escape, to be free and then to get back to his family. I haven’t seen this film, this character, before. Will Smith is perfect for it. He has all the qualities to do it. He’s at a place in his life where, we know Will’s charming and a talented actor and that he’s physical and we’ve seen him go really deep in other films. When I sat down with Will, we both talked about taking our skill sets to another level for this one, and giving ourselves completely to it in an honest and fair, true way. An actor’s portrayal as close as the film could get to this world. For me, it probably going to be one of the most important films I will make, in my life. That’s how I really feel about it. It sticks with me, I think about it all the time. I’ve been quietly watching the news to see what is going on in the world. I watch, before I speak on a lot of these things. The best weapon I have, and those in our business have, is our art form. We get a chance to entertain, enlighten and educate through our art form. This one says it all. It should be timeless, a film that is more appropriate today than ever before and necessary.
“He’s not being portrayed as just a victim, which always bothered me,” Fuqua said “The only time I saw a film that showed a taste of what I always felt should be seen more, is Roots. The character, Kunta Kinte, they cut his foot off to stop him from trying to escape. I always wanted to make a movie where you see those characters that fought back and did what they had to do, for freedom. Not for revenge, but freedom.
Fuqua said he and Smith will complete their other obligations, and then this is the film they’ll make.
“As soon as possible,” Fuqua said when asked when he’ll make Emancipation. “I’m just working finish Infinite and it depends on Will’s schedule. We’ve already been working together, storyboarding and doing pre-visual looks and talking about technically how to approach this. Before I even started working on Infinite, I was working with my storyboard artist and Will’s company to design these epic battle scenes and this journey through the swamps, and fighting the alligator and how to do all that in a way where it’s authentic, real and safe. And what techniques we could use to make it a unique piece of cinema that would make it very different, in a visual style. So we have been doing it, just on our own, for a long time.”
Fuqua believes Smith is at the perfect point in his career to take on the role of Peter.
“He’s focused and is a serious actor and producer,” Fuqua said. “Will cares about every aspect of it, from storyboards to the characters and the technique. Will’s a solid producer, which helps. And having an actor who gives his heart to a project like this…there’s a small group of guys like that. Denzel, Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Will, guys that dive in with you all the way. As a director, you cannot ask for more than to have guys like that with you,” Fuqua said.