After the Slap, can Will Smith's 'Emancipation' get Oscar love?

When Will Smith took the stage Wednesday night at Westwood's Village Theatre to introduce his new slavery thriller "Emancipation," the nearly full house cheered and took out their phones to capture the moment. The actor had just finished striding the premiere's red carpet, flashing his thousand-megawatt smile for photographers alongside his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and their three children, Trey, Jaden and Willow.

"So far, so good," Smith said, responding to a question about how it felt returning to the spotlight eight months after he struck presenter Chris Rock on the Dolby Theatre stage at the Oscars.

In other words, the premiere of "Emancipation," which opens in select theaters Friday before arriving Dec. 9 on Apple TV+, appeared to largely be business as usual. Smith, the film's star and producer, hit his marks to extol the story of an enslaved man escaping to reunite with his wife and children after Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. At the film's premiere, the friendly audience cheered mostly on cue.

Beneath the surface, however, the rollout of "Emancipation" has strayed well outside the standard awards-season playbook, as the film's backers delicately attempt to shift the narrative away from Smith's shocking, profanity-laced Oscar-night meltdown. Now,"Emancipation" will undertake a perilous journey as Apple Original Films mounts an awards campaign amid lingering mixed feelings within the industry about Smith's actions and the motion picture academy's response.

The importance of the film's subject matter is undeniable; "Emancipation" is based on the true story of a man known as “Whipped Peter,” whose scarred back became one of the most enduring images of the horrors of slavery. In 2014, the searing drama "12 Years a Slave" earned nine Oscar nominations and claimed the best picture award.

For the team behind "Emancipation," though, winning such favor among Oscar voters who watched in dismay as Smith derailed their biggest night could prove an uphill battle.

"It would be a hard movie to sell in normal times — because any adult drama is a hard sell for audiences right now," said a veteran awards consultant, speaking anonymously because of client conflicts. "But you add in what Will Smith did at the Oscars ... that was embarrassing for everyone. And people in this town don't like to be embarrassed."

Smith slaps Chris Rock onstage during the 94th Academy Awards in March
Smith slaps Chris Rock onstage during the 94th Academy Awards in March (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

As "Emancipation" lands in the thick of Oscar season, the stakes are sky high both for Apple — which spent a reported $120 million to produce the film and is coming off a best picture win for its feel-good drama "CODA" — and for Smith, who went on to win the lead actor prize for "King Richard" less than an hour after striking Rock.

As punishment for his actions, Smith has been banned from attending all Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences events for the next 10 years. But, while he is no longer a member of the organization, he remains eligible to be nominated by Oscar voters both as the film’s lead actor and, should “Emancipation” land a best picture nod, as one of its producers.

In the immediate wake of the Slap, the fate of "Emancipation," which was in postproduction, appeared uncertain. Reports emerged that Apple was weighing delaying the release of the film in an effort to shield it from the firestorm.

"People were worried; there’s a lot of money involved in how people in the world felt about that moment," the film's director, Antoine Fuqua, told The Times last month. "I had to be very patient and understand that there’s a big corporation behind all this, obviously, and there’s a lot of feelings behind what happened. I had to let it play out."

Ultimately, Apple opted to move ahead with the planned awards-season release, formulating a carefully orchestrated plan to build support for the film among key tastemakers in the Black community.

In recent months, “Emancipation” had well-received screenings in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual conference, and at a private gathering in L.A. hosted by Smith and attended by several high-powered Black entertainment figures including Tyler Perry, Dave Chappelle, Rihanna and Kenya Barris. Smith even paid a visit to the Los Angeles Lakers to promote the film, scoring an endorsement from the team on social media.

Meanwhile, Smith — whose initial apologies for the incident were widely criticized as inadequate — has been attempting to rehabilitate his own public image. In a recent interview with Trevor Noah on "The Daily Show," the star expressed his concerns that audiences and awards voters could punish the team behind "Emancipation" as a result of his actions.

“I hope that their work will be honored, and their work will not be tainted based on a horrific decision on my part,” he said.

One barrier toward success on the awards front could be the decidedly mixed reviews for the film, which broke just as the "Emancipation" premiere was ending.

"Emancipation" currently sports a 59 score on review aggregator Metacritic, a low number for a film with Oscar aspirations. Times film critic Justin Chang praised Smith's acting, calling it "solid, easily sympathetic, sometimes rousing," but wrote that "Fuqua's filmmaking instincts are clumsy and prone to cliché." Notably during the premiere, big action moments intended to be stirring prompted just a smattering of audience applause.

In interviews with a dozen Oscar voters, most seemed inclined toward giving the film a chance, though the majority said they'd wait until it lands on the academy's streaming platform.

"I think you'd have to be pretty small-minded to remember what happened at the Oscars and have that prevent you from watching the movie," said one member, speaking confidentially per motion picture academy guidelines in discussing voting matters. "A lot of people worked on 'Emancipation' besides Will Smith. They deserve consideration."

Smith may well merit attention too. Even in the movie's middling reviews, Smith has earned praise for a commanding performance that, in its physicality and the amount of blood, sweat and tears pouring from his character, could be compared to Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar-winning work in the 2015 adventure drama "The Revenant."

Voters, though, sight unseen, express misgivings about bestowing the honor of a nomination on the actor.

"Too soon," one actor said. "I don't care if he wrestled a real alligator in that swamp. It's just too soon."

"I'm not holding a grudge," offered another. "But to honor someone who was just banned from academy events for 10 years would send a weird message."

Others, like television writer Kirk A. Moore, say the academy itself has a history of sending mixed messages, citing the Oscar that director Roman Polanski won for the 2002 drama "The Pianist" after fleeing the United States in 1978 before sentencing in a trial in which he pleaded guilty for having unlawful sex with a minor.

"I hate Will Smith has to go on this apology tour for hypocrites who probably won’t watch 'Emancipation' anyway out of spite," Moore wrote on Twitter.

Speaking to The Times, Fuqua — whose 2001 crime thriller "Training Day" propelled Denzel Washington to a lead actor Oscar win and co-star Ethan Hawke to a supporting actor nod — shared his own hope that audiences and awards voters alike will set aside their feelings about Smith and receive the film on its own terms.

"So many people worked on this film and gave their heart and soul," said the director, who endured a grueling shoot complete with a hurricane, a tornado and the everyday miseries of shooting in a Louisiana swamp. "I feel like the subject matter is bigger than that event."

With a note of resignation, he added, "I’m just taking everything as it comes, sticking to the task at hand, sticking to the work and the art. That’s all I can control, so I’m focused on that."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.