Why Apple Should Release Will Smith’s ‘Emancipation’ This Year (Column)

“Have no fear of perfection — you’ll never reach it.”

A quote by Spanish artist Salvador Dalí feels appropriate when discussing the apprehension about releasing the Will Smith-starrer “Emancipation” this year. With “Killers of the Flower Moon” staying the course for 2023, and Smith posting an apology video for slapping Chris Rock at the 94th Oscars, a path to bowing the Apple Original Film is becoming more clear.

There’s never going to be a “perfect” time to release any Smith vehicle in the future — whether it’s in 2022 or a decade from now — nor will the public ever forget his actions of the evening. Apple Original Films, Westbrook Studios and all the various filmmakers attached to the project should simply bite the bullet and go forth with the film’s release, and an awards campaign, if warranted.

Before Smith won best actor for playing Venus and Serena Williams’ father in the drama “King Richard” (2021), the early buzz for the Antoine Fuqua drama was very positive, suggesting it would be Apple’s big awards contender following “CODA’s” success.

Fuqua, who directed the 2001 crime drama “Training Day,” which earned Denzel Washington an Oscar, is one of the most respected Black filmmakers of his generation. But he’s never had his time in the spotlight. If the buzz is accurate, both for him and actor Ben Foster, Smith’s actions at the 94th ceremony shouldn’t preclude awards attention.

The apology video will serve as an industry and consumer litmus test. What is the reaction to Smith making this long-awaited address, and will he be tolerated when attached to a project? This video was made solely by Smith and his team, with no involvement from Apple.

The situation can be viewed through multiple prisms, with nuances that have been lost. It’s easy to say, “Smith shouldn’t have slapped Rock,” and that has not been disputed by any parties. There are two camps: those that call for the media to move on from the situation, and those that are still calling for a type of “professional crucifixion” of Smith.

Meanwhile, Roman Polanski, convicted of raping a child in the 1970s and who remains a fugitive of the law to this day, was nonetheless awarded best director for “The Pianist.” Some of the industry’s most prominent actors and executives have continued to work with him. There’s far too much to unpack in the “punishment” for a disgraced Black man versus a white man, but those can be debated in other columns.

Releasing “Emancipation” is also an opportunity for a teachable moment. As the world remains as politically and culturally divided as ever, and talking conservative heads decry “cancel culture” ruining comedy, forgiveness has become the new “F word,” inexplicably written off by anyone willing to have a discussion about complicated subject matter. Arguably, “compromise” is deemed just as offensive. You can have an entire release strategy and awards campaign surrounding “Emancipation” without Smith’s involvement, despite him being the film’s central figure.

Written by Bill Collage, and produced by Todd Black, Joey McFarland and Jon Mone, the movie tells the story of a runaway slave who navigates the swamps of Louisiana on an arduous journey to escape the plantation owners who nearly killed him.

Now that Smith has gotten his apology out of the way, it’s time for Apple to seize the moment and put “Emancipation” into the 2022 rotation.