Will Smith has signed on to play a runaway slave in Antoine Fuqua‘s action-thriller Emancipation. The film is being described as being closer in tone to Apocalypto and The Revenant than Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years A Slave.
Bill Collage (Exodus: Gods And Kings) has written the script, which is based on the harrowing true story of Peter, a runaway slave whose photo of his scourged back made its way around the world and was held up as proof of the cruelty of slavery in America in 1863.
He was a slave on a Louisiana plantation owned by John and Bridget Lyons, and he received a brutal whipping by one of the plantation’s overseers that nearly killed him.
Deciding to flee to the North to join the Union Army, when Peter showed Army doctors his back during a medical examination, they took photos of his scars, and one photo later known as “the scourged back” was published by the Independent in May 1863, and later by Harper Weekly in its July 4 issue.
The photo solidified the abolitionist cause, and prompted many black people who had already been freed to join the Union Army in order to fight racists in the South.
Fuqua reportedly first read the script nearly two years ago and has essentially been working on the movie with Smith in secret for some time now.
Emancipation is making its case that it’s less a traditional slavery drama, and instead something closer to an action-packed chase movie, as Peter uses onions to mask his scent from hunters and their vicious bloodhounds while he makes his way barefoot through the treacherous swamps of Louisiana en route to freedom.
Fuqua spoke to Deadline and told them that the script: “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 […] 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”.
Fuqua said that he plans to shoot the film “as soon as possible” although that “depends on Will’s schedule”, and added “it’s probably going to be one of the most important films I will make, in my life […] 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”.
Fuqua has established himself as a name in action filmmaking through films such as The Equalizer and Training Day, and was filming Infinite with Mark Wahlberg before the pandemic struck. Seeing how he can adapt Peter’s story into an action-thriller will be fascinating. Add in Smith’s presence and the story’s topical relevance, and Emancipation should become one of the most anticipated in-development films.