‘Emancipation’ Cast Talks Obstacles, Holy Spirits and Breaking Free of Slavery

“Emancipation,” is based on the true story of Peter, a man who flees enslavement in Louisiana just as the south

“Emancipation,” is based on the true story of Peter, a man who flees enslavement in Louisiana just as the south is getting word that President Abraham Lincoln has freed slaves. Peter, played by Will Smith, uses his faith and love for his family to carry him through his search for freedom while dodging slave hunters in bug and alligator infested swamps. 

After finding his way to a Union Army camp, Peter was photographed for a medical examination. The photo, taken in 1863, showed a bare-backed, severely scarred slave and  would go on to be published all over the world. It was referred to as “Whipped Peter,” and served as a call to end slavery at the time, and as inspiration for “Emancipation” today. 

An escaped enslaved man named Peter showing his scarred back at a medical examination in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1863.
Library of Congress

“My favorite thing about the photo, I know there is a lot of trauma in it, is the dignity that Peter has,” says Charmaine Bingwa who plays Dodienne, Peter’s wife.
“There is just a slight cock of his head that shows you that, you know, that this man may be enslaved but he is not enslaved mentally.”

Celeb Talks “Emancipation” With Cast

Will Smith, Ben Foster who plays slave hunter Jim Fassel, Bingwa, and the film’s director Antoine Fuqua talked to a small group of critics (including yours truly) in the Critics Choice Association.

We start with why tell this story now. “I felt passionate about seeing Will do this,” says Fuqua about reading the script after Smith sent it to him. “Part of that is that is because in 1863, the concept of someone like Will, who is so loved, would have been a slave then.”  It is one of the main reasons he decided to lead the project, but it certainly wasn’t the only reason. “Today it feels like we are forgetting our past which is dangerous,” says Fuqua. “Some people were born when Barack Obama was president as if nothing before Barack Obama existed, which is what they want you to believe.”  He continues,  “As I watched George Floyd die in the street I was even more fueled. It’s important to tell these stories now.”

“When I first read the script, it’s an incredibly moving piece of writing and I wanted nothing to do with it. I didn’t want to play the white devil.”

Ben Foster on his thoughts after reading the script for “Emancipation.”
Ben Foster in “Emancipation” Photo: Apple TV+

To say actor Ben Foster was reluctant to play the role of Jim Fassel is generous at best.
“When I first read the script, it’s an incredibly moving piece of writing and I wanted nothing to do with it,” Foster says with conviction. “I did not want to play the white devil.”

The idea of racism for Foster is about as far as the countries of Romania and Ukraine, which is where his family comes from. “It went against everything I was raised with. My nana marched with Martin Luther King a month after Selma. My grandfather would picket outside of Woolworths because people of color couldn’t eat at the counter, “ Foster pauses before adding. “He was the only picketer by the way.”

Foster continues, “So, to circle into this, when I read the script my understanding of racism is that it’s not all in the south, it’s not just in the south. Not all southerners are racists, and not all northerners are civil rights activists.” It was for this reason that in “Emancipation” Foster’s character is not from the South – a seemingly small but critical tweak. Rather than reject the movie, Foster chose to say yes. “I could help lift the veil and be in service of this film, in service of telling this story, by taking him out of the trope of the southern racist.”

“Emancipation” Far From Free of Obstacles During Production

When it came time to actually start shooting, simply put, the production was grueling (the film was shot well before any Oscar controversy).The film was in production while Hurricane Ida, a category four storm, bore down on the state – ironically, it made landfall on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. “We leaned on the crew, the people of Louisiana,” says Fuqua. “After the hurricane, and as you know some of them didn’t have a home and were struggling. It was tough to go to work everyday and see those blue tarps all over houses.”

Will Smith, Michael Luwoye and Gilbert Owuor in “Emancipation “Photo: Apple TV+

“I’ve grown in a way that I can’t imagine how I ever would have learned the lessons I learned in a different way.”

Will Smith on being a part of “Emancipation.”

In addition to Ida, the crew also had alligator infested swamps to wade through.  “We’re in a swamp and up to my neck in a swamp,” Smith says motioning to his neck. “It was all of that. As an artist I’m ecstatic that you feel it on screen.  You definitely feel everything that we went through out there,” says Smith. “I am grateful to Peter and I’m grateful for the difficulty of this film,” says Smith. “I’ve grown in a way that I can’t imagine how I ever would have learned the lessons I learned in a different way.”

Adding to the complications of the weather and the environment was the pandemic. Smith, who serves as a producer on the film, recognized the dedication of the cast and their crew. “You know, 400 background actors that have to be tested every day now before they get out of the car right?  So it was taking 6 hours to even be able to get a shot up in the morning,” he said.

Obstacles aside, Smith and crew stayed the course. “As all of those things were happening we started to see that there was a spiritual thing happening around the film.  That was a test of our resolve in the same way that, you know, Peter was being tested. So we were sort of finding a coalescence of art and life was difficult,  but empowering for everybody.”

Director Antoine Fuqua and Will Smith behind the scenes of “Emancipation” Photo: Apple TV+.

Apart from the outside obstacles, the shooting of “Emancipation” carried an internal weight not felt before by anyone in the cast. For Ben Foster, it was an experience that was life changing. “As a man with this complexion (points to face) it was a new experience to walk onto a set, walk into an environment with 200 supporting players. I could feel them looking at me. And it was with a lot of emotion, it was a lot of generational emotion. I could feel the hate, I could feel the fear, I could feel the disgust. I know we are making a film but scratch the surface. So walking onto set was just about, “Take it, take it. Listen to it.” And that alters you.” says Foster.

That considerably heavy feeling was felt by everyone while shooting “Emancipation.”

“We had one day we were filming on a real plantation, the slave pens,  where a young lady had the spirit and she started to speak in tongues,” says Fuqua. “It just was something I’ve never seen. And me and Will went over and just wrapped her arms around her and she was shaking. I never experienced anything like that before,” Fuqua says. 

“She all the way caught the Holy Ghost,” says Smith of the situation. “I grew up in the Baptist Church so, you know, I had experienced this before and I know what that sound is. She was purging and it was scary and beautiful and, you know, divine. But it was like that was the kind of energy that the set was inflicting on all of us.”

Imani Pullum and Charmaine Bingwa in “Emancipation.” Photo: Apple TV+.

“I don’t care what religion you are, it was undeniable, you could feel the presence of some sort of a spirit or our ancestors around you,” says Charmaine Bingwa. “One of my favorite notes that he (Fuqua) would give is just, ‘Beneath your feet is 400 years of pain and blood and toil in the very earth beneath you.’” says Bingwa. “It was chilling to walk onto a plantation where you could feel like what had gone on there. It was very palpable.  I used it to inspire me. I used the fact that somebody could have been whipped there, beaten there, killed there, I used it as a generative tool of honor for them. And to remember why you were doing it.”

What Does ‘Emancipation’ Mean To You?

While the actors shared varying powerful experiences of awareness on set, they all shared a single shared thread when it came to the  idea of what emancipation means to them.  Ben Foster says with less than a minute left in the conversation, “We can look at two words in 30 seconds. One is slavery and one is freedom,” Foster then points to his head before saying, “Mental freedom, heart freedom. That is emancipation.”

“Emancipation means to me freedom of bondage. Whether that means physical bondage or even bondage of self.,” says Charmaine Bingwa. “For me, why Peter is so amazing is he is able to overcome anything because of his mindset and I think that’s possible for all human beings regardless of color, race or creed.”

“The concept of emancipation, the concept of freedom,  and what I learned from Peter is that it is an internal idea,” says Will Smith. “Peter’s body was enslaved but his mind was always free.”

“Emancipation” is rated R and is in select theaters now and  globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, December 9, 2022.