Almost seven months to the day and ninety billion takes after The Slap disrupted the Oscars, Will Smith is on the comeback trail, sort of. He has a new film coming out in early December, Emancipation, screening in a limited theatrical run before debuting on Apple TV+ a week later. A trailer dropped for Emancipation a few weeks ago, it looks like bog standard Oscar bait, the kind of historical Black pain narrative the Academy eats up. It’s about a former slave known as “Whipped Peter”, a photo of whose scarred back galvanized the abolitionist movement during the worst days of the Civil War.
Emancipation is directed by Antoine Fuqua, and stars Will Smith, and once upon a time would have been in prime position for a big Oscar push. But besides The Slap and its fallout—which has Academy members divided on whether or not they’d support a new Will Smith Oscar run—Smith literally just won an Oscar. The Academy rarely hands out back-to-back wins, so even if Smith did repeat a nomination, a win is almost guaranteed not to happen. In normal circumstances, Emancipation and Smith would have to be extraordinarily good to overcome the Academy’s recency bias, and these are far from normal circumstances. But I am glad Apple is going ahead with the release, and that Smith has supporters in his corner for his quiet comeback.
Smith screened Emancipation for a few friends, including Rihanna and A$AP Rocky, Kenya Barris, Tyler Perry, and Dave Chappelle (er…). I call it a low-key comeback because Smith is clearly putting himself out there on behalf of Emancipation, which he also produced, but in a carefully managed kind of way. He’s hardly flinging himself on the public’s mercy, he’s buttressing his support with his powerful friends, his community who hasn’t abandoned him. And I’m glad they haven’t, because everything about The Slap is so over the top at this point, and so much of the reaction has been about the Academy’s failure to handle their own sh-t in the moment, it’s good to be reminded Will Smith still has people who show up for him. Should he have hit Chris Rock? No. Should he be banned for life from the public sphere because of it? Also no. That was one aberration in a lifetime of being Not That Guy, he deserves a chance to rebuild and reclaim his professional reputation. Emancipation might not be a major player in awards season, but it is a step in a redemptive direction for Will Smith.