Can Will Smith overcome the controversy surrounding the slap heard around the world to win his second Oscar?
That’s the question facing Apple after it announced that it will release “Emancipation,” a drama about an escaped slave that it paid Smith $35 million to star in and produce. The streamer is betting that the furor over Smith’s assault of Chris Rock at the Oscars has died down, particularly after Smith recorded an awkward apology video.
But even if Smith becomes the first performer since Tom Hanks to score back-to-back Oscars for best actor, he won’t be able to pick up his prize in person. Nor will he even be able to accept it via satellite. That’s because in April, facing almost certain expulsion, Smith decided to resign from membership of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. That was followed almost immediately by the Academy Board of Governors’ decision to ban him from the Oscars telecast and Academy-sponsored events for 10 years.
But even though he can’t accept his award on the broadcast, Smith can still be nominated, and even win another Oscar.
It’s unclear how aggressively Smith will campaign for the prize or if Apple will even push him in the crowded best actor race, which also includes Brendan Fraser (“The Whale”), Austin Butler (“Elvis”), Colin Farrell (“The Banshees of Inisherin”) and Hugh Jackman (“The Son”), none of whom slapped a beloved stand-up during a global television event. But if Smith decides to press the flesh, he won’t be able to do it at any Academy member gatherings. He’ll have to consign himself to events presented by the likes of SAG and the Golden Globes.
If Smith’s performance was able to overcome his publicly perceived “blacklisting,” the Academy’s Actors Branch, which is comprised of about 1,400 former colleagues, acquaintances, and Hollywood adjacent working performers, can place him on their ballot to receive a nomination when voting occurs from Jan. 12-17. The official noms will be announced on Jan. 24.
In the film, Smith plays Peter, a character based on the infamous “Whipped Peter,” an escaped slave whose photo of his scourged back became one of the most widely circulated pictures of the abolitionist movement during the American Civil War.
But that’s not the only category Smith can be nominated for.
The Academy has 18 branches that make up the approximately 9,600 eligible voting members. In addition to voting in their specific area of expertise, each votes in the best picture category, with their ballots having 10 available slots to list their favorite films of the year.
If “Emancipation” were to be nominated for the Academy’s top honor, Smith, who serves as one of the producers for the film, alongside Jon Mone (with his first full producer credit no less) and former nominees Todd Black (“Fences”), Joey McFarland (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) would be among the nominated producers (noteworthy: the Academy makes all final determinations on eligible producing nominees).
Double-nominated for “King Richard” for best actor and best picture, Smith made history last year as the second Black man to be nominated in both categories (after Denzel Washington for “Fences”) and the first Black man to produce himself in an acting win.
“Emancipation” screened over the weekend in Washington D.C. as part of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Legislative Conference, along with groups from the Congressional Black Caucus, Historically Black College and Universities, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Power Rising and #WinWithBlackWomen. Both Smith and Fuqua spoke, in person, at the event.
The early reactions were positive from attendees, including Donna Brazile, former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, saying in a tweet, “powerful picture highlighting how Black ppl [people] fought for the freedom.”
Tonya J. Williams, director of strategic communications for Emily’s List, called it “a powerful & gut-wrenching depiction of the horrors of slavery. Will Smith, who masterfully played the role of Peter, spoke about how he (and we) hold space in this world using Peter’s life as the example.”
In addition, Angela Rye, principal and CEO of IMPACT Strategies, also called it “a powerful story not rooted in our history, but also our resilience as a people.”
For Apple, the decision to release “Emancipation” was evident. As it stands, the reigning best picture champion of last year’s “CODA” (2021) has a well-liked albeit quiet charmer “Cha Cha Real Smooth” from writer, director and star Cooper Raiff. Toronto didn’t boost its other titles in a significant way – “Causeway” with Jennifer Lawrence, “Raymond & Ray” with Ewan McGregor and “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” with Zac Efron. Next year, the streamer will juggle two filmmaking masters, Martin Scorsese with “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Ridley Scott with “Napoleon.” It would be ludicrous to inject a barrage of slap-related questions into the fray.
Read: the latest predictions, visit Variety’s Oscars Hub.
However, it should be noted, Smith is not the sole owner of “Emancipation.” Antoine Fuqua, an admired and deeply respected director for more than 25 years, is at the helm. The same person who gave Denzel Washington the vehicle that brought him his long overdue lead actor statuette for “Training Day” (2001). If the buzz on the film’s quality is proven to be true, and we’ve arrived at our “Fuqua moment” when in 94 years only six Black directors have ever been nominated, shouldn’t that be allowed to take place?
Can Apple weather this “Emancipation” storm for all the creatives involved? Are Oscar voters and consumers ready to put the slap behind them? Awards season will tell.