(CNN) — After the Academy Awards earlier this year, movie watchers and industry insiders alike have wondered what Will Smith’s now-infamous, on-air slapping of Chris Rock will mean for the “King Richard” actor’s career, as well as his future Oscars chances.

Now, ahead of the release of Smith’s new film “Emancipation,” director Antoine Fuqua is opening up about all that speculation, and his wish that audiences will instead focus on the searing narrative at the heart of the movie, namely the historic struggle against slavery in America.

“The film to me is bigger than that moment. Four hundred years of slavery is bigger than one moment,” Fuqua told Vanity Fair in an interview published on Tuesday about the film, in which Smith plays a character named Peter, a man who escapes from slavery.

The character was inspired by a historical figure commonly referred to as “Whipped Peter,” who was featured in graphic 1863 photos that depicted the brutality of slavery.

Fuqua, who directed Denzel Washington in his best actor Oscar-winning role in “Training Day” in 2001, added that his hope is that people will “watch the movie and be swept away with the great performance by Will and all the real hard work that the whole crew did.”

Smith, who won the best actor Oscar this year for his role as Richard Williams, father of tennis stars Venus and Serena, has been barred from attending any Academy events or programs, in person or virtually, including the Academy Awards themselves for a period of ten years from 2022 as a result of his physical outburst.

That penalty, which was decided upon after a series of exchanges between Smith and the Academy following the March 27 awards show, does not bar the actor from being nominated for another statuette.

“Emancipation” will hit theaters in limited release on Dec. 2 before it begins streaming on Apple TV+ a week later, meaning that both the film and Smith will be eligible for Oscar nods this awards season.

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