Is Emancipation based on a true story? The tragic inspiration behind Will Smith’s slavery film on Apple TV

Will Smith returns in a devastating slavery tale

Will Smith and Ben Foster in Emancipation
(Image credit: Apple TV/Future)

Will Smith returns to movie screens in a powerful film about a slave fleeing a Louisiana plantation - we take a look at the movie's tragic backstory

Emancipation is released on Apple TV on December 9, and is an historical action film with Will Smith in the lead role. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the film tells the tale of an enslaved man in 1860s Louisiana who escapes his plantation and embarks on a perilous journey to freedom. The film has been in the works since 2018, when producer Joey McFarland was researching a real story he wanted to bring to audiences -  it was officially announced in June 2020, with Apple determined to acquire the rights to the film, and outbidding several other studios to get their hands on it in the process. Read on to find out exactly which story McFarland has based the film on, from a devastating period in history.

The Echo 3 True story (opens in new tab) on Apple TV is also an intriguing one, and Luke Evans leads a strong cast in the explosive thriller. An equally incredible true story abounds elsewhere on Apple TV, in Zac Efron's The Greatest Beer Run Ever (opens in new tab). Ted Lasso fans are also waiting for the streamer to announce that season 3 release date (opens in new tab).  

Is Emancipation based on a true story?

Yes, Emancipation is based on the true story of a slave named Peter. A photograph of Peter with a scarred back following a whipping emerged in the 1860s, and the pictures made their way around the world with Peter becoming known as "whipped Peter". 

The image was an early example of something going viral, and put the brutality of slavery to the forefront of people's minds. According to The Guardian (opens in new tab), on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, announcing that all slaves within states that had seceded from the union, would be made free. However, some states - including Maryland - did not leave the union and maintained slavery. That meant the declaration did not actually end slavery throughout the entire nation.

Peter was unlucky enough to live in one of the southern states maintaining slavery. He was one of 40 slaves working at John and Bridget Lyons’ cotton and onion plantation in Louisiana, where those enslaved were subjected to terrible acts of cruelty. In March 1863, Peter made the decision to escape the plantation, going on the run for 10 days. Hunters and dogs trailed him, and he disguised his scent with onions while navigating treacherous terrain. He made it forty miles, to the Union army stationed in Baton Rouge, and was a free man on entering their territory. 

When enlisting in a Black regiment, military doctors examined Peter. The inspection found Peter's back to be covered in scarring from the numerous whippings he endured at the plantation. The sight was captured by photographers William McPherson and J Oliver, and the portrait became known as "The Scourged Back". In the photo, Peter sits with one hand on his hip and his back to the camera, looking over his shoulder. The skin on his back had been rendered a map of keloid scars from a particular whipping performed by plantation staff - Peter had been bedridden for two months following the incident. 

According to the New York Daily Tribune, Peter said at the time of the portrait, "Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me – I don’t remember the whipping. I was two months in bed, sore from the whipping and salt brine, which Overseer put on my back. By and by my senses began to come – they said I was sort of crazy, and tried to shoot everybody". The photo was published in Harper’s Magazine and was promptly circulated by abolitionists and published around the world - it served to provide irrefutable evidence of the unspeakable cruelty suffered by slaves.

Imani Pullum, Will Smith, Jeremiah Friedlander, Landon Chase Dubois, Charmaine Bingwa and Jordyn McIntosh in Emancipation

(Image credit: Apple TV)

What happened to Whipped Peter?

When he became a free man, Peter served as a soldier in the Louisiana Native Guard. This regiment of the Union army was comprised entirely of free Black recruits. He reportedly fought in the Union attack on Port Hudson in July 1863.

Mary Elliott, curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, said to The Guardian of Peter's time in the Louisiana Native Guard "That was important for him to be able to do that. His story is powerful because you can’t talk about slavery without talking about freedom. There’s always this desire for freedom. When people say, ‘Oh, another slave film’, ‘Oh, you’re going to talk about slavery’, well, guess what? I’m also going to talk about freedom.”

Unfortunately, nothing further is known about Peter’s life after the Port Hudson attack in 1863. His portrait still hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to serve as a reminder of the cruelty endured by those once enslaved.

Why is Emancipation rated R?

Emancipation is rated R due to strong racial violence, disturbing images, and language. An R rating means that those under 17 require an accompanying parent or guardian to view the film with them.

According to the British Film Institute (opens in new tab), current British film classifications are similar to those found in the US. Films with an R rating are the only major exception, as they have no direct equivalent. Most R-rated films in the UK get a 15 certificate, meaning in Britain, under-15s would not be admitted to see a film even with an accompanying adult. However, Emancipation will have a limited theatrical release, but most people will likely stream it on Apple TV at home. In this incidence, parents would be urged to head the rating before letting younger teens watch the film. 

Will Smith in Emancipation

(Image credit: Apple TV)

Emancipation: Cast

  • Will Smith (Suicide Squad, Aladdin) as Peter
  • Ben Foster (The Survivor, Hustle) as Fassel
  • Charmaine Bingwa (Black Box, The Good Fight) as Dodienne
  • Steven Ogg (The Walking Dead, Snowpiercer) as Sergeant Howard
  • Mustafa Shakir (Luke Cage, Cowboy Bebop) as Andre Cailloux
  • Timothy Hutton (Jack Ryan, The Haunting of Hill House) as Senator John Lyons
  • Gilbert Owuor (Montana Story, Reprisal) as Gordon
  • Grant Harvey (The Rookie, Animal Kingdom) as Leeds
  • Ronnie Gene Blevins (Twin Peaks, Tulsa King) as Harrington
  • Jabbar Lewis (The Terminal List, Adventure Force 5) as Tomas
  • Michael Luwoye (The Magicians, The Lion Guard) as John
  • Aaron Moten (Disjointed, Native Son) as Knowls
  • Imani Pullum (All That, The Orville) as Betsy

Speaking to EW (opens in new tab) about what drew them to the film script, Will Smith said "I was sent the screenplay, and it was one of the greatest reads I've ever had as an actor. I knew I wanted to make it by the time I was on page 20. I had seen the image of Whipped Peter as a child, but as his story started to come into focus, I was moved in all of the most beautiful ways. When you look at the brutality that he suffered, and then realizing that through that he was able to sustain faith, gratitude, and love in the face of those kinds of atrocities - I knew that I wanted to learn from Peter".

Dodienne actress Charmaine Bingwa said "I was on the edge of my seat as I read it. I immediately read it twice because I was just like, 'This is thrilling, so engaging, and just an immense tale of triumph'".

Imani Pullum and Charmaine Bingwa in Emancipation

(Image credit: Apple TV)

Emancipation: Rotten Tomatoes

Emancipation appears to be dividing #critics and audiences, as it currently holds a 49% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to a 100% audience score.

Andrew Parker from The Gate (opens in new tab) said "If all you want is knives chopping people up, musket rounds ripping through bodies, animals attacking defenceless humans en masse, and the worst aspects of humanity reenacted in agonizing detail, Emancipation might be up your alley."

Josh Parham from Next Best Picture (opens in new tab) agreed, adding "While there is an imposing performance from Will Smith and some exceptional below-the-line achievements, the hollowness that lingers is one that artificially constructs the forward momentum.

However, an audience member said "This might be the best movie of Will Smith's career. This was not another slavery movie.The way Will Smith portrayed this man you could feel the fear as you saw it on his face. This is a must see movie from an educational standpoint. This is a brief but intense view of one man's determination not to be treated like an animal. Watching this movie was like watching Ray, you forgot you were watching Will and he became Peter."

Another added "This movie is hard to watch at times but incredibly necessary to watch. Smith delivers an undeniably phenomenal performance and the cinematography is purposely devoid of colour yet still beautiful. The other cast members did an incredible job as well. Everyone worked hard and it shows. The story is about an enslaved man escaping the horrors of slavery, however its about love, family, triumph over evil, and so much more." 

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Lucy Wigley
TV writer - contributing

Lucy is a multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ experience writing about entertainment, parenting and family life. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and moms.com. In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and telling you why you should watch them.