Will Smith is between a Chris Rock and a hard place.
The speculation surrounding Apple Original Films’ “Emancipation” and Smith, its star and producer, has been the watercooler talk of awards season and the bane of awards prognosticators tracking their charts. Will voters embrace the epic? Can they or should they?
Following his slapping of the comedian at the 94th Oscars, Smith resigned from AMPAS and was banned from attending the ceremony or other Academy-sponsored events for 10 years. However, that doesn’t preclude the “King Richard” best actor winner from being nominated or even winning another statuette during that period. Nor should it prevent Antoine Fuqua’s film from being considered for accolades.
If you removed “the slap” from the equation, this awards season’s directing race narrative would probably have been trending toward Steven Spielberg (“The Fabelmans”) versus Fuqua (and it still can). Indeed, this is Fuqua’s “Schindler’s List” (for which Spielberg won his first Oscar): “Emancipation’s” piercing honesty and careful craftsmanship are the crowning achievement of Fuqua’s long career, which is marked by populist favorites such as “Training Day” (2001), which won Denzel Washington his lead statuette.
The film tells the story of Peter (Smith), a runaway slave who sets out through the swamps of Louisiana on a grueling escape from the plantation owners who nearly killed him. Smith’s performance is not only soulful but commanding. His bearing as he traverses the rigorous terrain is reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-winning work in “The Revenant” (2015). Smith’s performance as Peter is more impressive than his Richard Williams in “King Richard” — and I thought he was fantastic in “King Richard.”
As for Smith’s chances of being nominated, the industry and cultural divide between supporters and naysayers will be far more complicated to navigate this time around. In conversations with members of the actors branch, they have expressed a range of feelings about Smith’s actions at the last ceremony, his punishment, and how he might be perceived in the eyes of industry voters.
I see an eerie parallel between the behavior of Academy voters and the quiet support of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election. To be clear, I’m not comparing the two men’s actions or personal traits in the slightest, but rather the way Trump’s supporters, especially independent swing voters, weren’t particularly vocal about their intentions. Nevertheless, when it came time to put the pen to the pad and vote, they checked off his name. That could be the narrative for Smith, although if he does manage a nom, the media and public won’t have the same devastating reaction they had to Trump’s win.
Remember that the actors branch has 1,303 voting members, and a contender needs 217 votes to be nominated. There will undoubtedly be detractors of Smith, which is why I suspect that even if he were to beat the odds and land in the top five of lead actor when the nearly 10,000-strong Academy membership votes, his chances of winning may be slim to none. However, as one member shares with Variety: “Mel Gibson keeps coming back, and we know where he stands on people of color and Jews. Will got his beating. Everybody took swings at him in the media. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve it. But now, we can move on. If he’s good, then he’s good.”
Smith’s prospects aside, will voters embrace “Emancipation’s” other accomplishments?
Typically, films tackling slavery face an uphill battle with voters who can’t stomach the grotesque depictions of inhumane treatment and the challenging subject matter. However, there might be a morbid curiosity to see “Emancipation,” if only to watch what Smith brings to the role.
As the villainous Fassel, who relentlessly chases Peter, Ben Foster may portray an abhorrent person who is an amalgamation of slave catchers throughout history. Still, the layer of fear he weaves into the character is an awards-caliber performance that calls to mind Oscar-nominated supporting turns such as Michael Fassbender in “12 Years a Slave” and Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List.”
Demonstrating how to make the most of limited screen time, Charmaine Bingwa is unflinching as the film’s emotional pillar, Dodienne, Peter’s wife and mother to his children, to whom he’s desperately trying to return. There are elements that feel similar to Jessica Chastain’s work in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (2011), which isn’t overtly “loud” but still incredibly moving. In a wide-open supporting actress race, I hope the Academy won’t overlook such a breakout talent because of misgivings about the film’s star and producer.
The artisan team Fuqua assembled is full of some of cinema’s most gifted and respected. Notable among them is three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (“JFK,” “The Aviator” and “Hugo”), who very well might have delivered his magnum opus with his framework blends of sepia tones and black-and-white imagery, particularly impressive considering the destruction caused by Hurricane Ida during production — no easy feat even for such a master.
If “Emancipation” is recognized for best picture, the Academy could face a complex public-relations dilemma. Smith is a credited producer and would be among the film nominees, along with Todd Black, Joey McFarland and Jon Mone. To have such an essential movie be nominated and the only Black producer (and possibly only Black actor) not be permitted to attend the ceremony will not sit well in the public square. That’s not to say the Academy should rescind its ban. Still, given the optics of Smith becoming the most nominated Black producer in history (he would tie with Jordan Peele at two each), the organization will have to rehash its verdict on Smith’s past actions and continue to highlight its diversity wins over the past few years. Or, it can pray to the Oscar gods that Smith doesn’t get nominated.
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