Will Smith says he hopes the “brutal” depictions of slavery in his upcoming film Emancipation are “not in vain”.
The 54-year-old Hollywood actor, who plays escaped slave Peter in the film, said it was one of the “most difficult” projects he has taken on in his more than 30 years as an actor.
The film tells the story behind an infamous image known as “whipped Peter” which shows a slave’s scarred back after he escaped a Louisiana plantation in the 1860s.
The image was spread by the abolitionist movement during the American Civil War and was published worldwide.
Smith attended the European premiere of Emancipation at Vue West End in London on Friday.
When asked about why he thinks this famous image has not been explored before this film in-depth, Smith told the PA news agency: “We (African Americans) kind of don’t want to see ourselves depicted in that way.
“So every time these stories come up, it’s a huge emotional and psychological (confrontation).
“That image of ‘whipped Peter’, it’s brutal, my hope, though, is that it’s not brutal, in vain.”
He also said he hopes it opens audience up to “compassion, empathy and a deeper level of understanding”.
Asked about why he thinks it’s a tale of freedom rather than slavery, Smith added: “What I connected to in this story is that Peter’s body was enslaved, but his mind was always emancipated. He was never a slave in his mind.”
He also said during the premiere that there are “powerful messages” for audiences today.
“It illuminates some of the psychological patterns that lead to the atrocities of the slave trade and I hope it also illuminates some of those similar patterns starting to rear their head in modern America,” he told PA.
He also said: “It was really difficult, getting called the N word 100 times a day by really good actors.
“It was difficult for for everybody, going back to some of those painful ideas and painful moments in American history. ”
This is Smith’s first big-screen project since he stormed the stage of the Oscars and slapped Chris Rock after comments the comedian made about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith.
Smith later apologised to Rock and the Academy for the incident, but was personally banned from attending any Academy events or programmes for 10 years.
In a recent interview with Washington DC’s Fox affiliate, Fox 5, he was asked what he would say to those who thought it was “too soon” for him to be making a comeback.
Smith replied: “The people on this team have done some of the best work their entire careers, and my deepest hope is that my actions don’t penalise my team.”
At the London premiere, Smith received praise from his fellow co-stars for helping with the difficult material and his wonderful personality.
The US Office star David Denman said Smith was “generous and kind” during the film along with being “very collaborative” as he played Union Army General William Dwight.
Zimbabwean-Australian actress Charmaine Bingwa, who stars as Smith’s wife, Dodienne, said Smith would “always lighten things up” on set while she had to work with the kind of material that “weighs on you physically and mentally”.
While X-Men: The Last Stand actor Ben Foster who plays the slave master Fassel in the film also said: “You can feel Will Smith on set before you hear him. It’s just, he’s got a deep resonance.
“I’m a huge fan of his, have been for decades and he does the finest work.”
Emancipation will be released in UK cinemas in December.