Will Smith’s Latest film Seeks to Bring a Dramatic and Action-based Story of an Unknown hero of the Civil War to life While Trying to keep his real-life Drama from Derailing its Chances.


“The Scourged Back” is the famous picture of “Whipped Peter”, an enslaved man who escaped from his oppressors in Louisiana in 1863 after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in rebelling states during the Civil War. It served as visual proof of the horrific treatment enslaved people in the south endured throughout the national cancer that was slavery. There were accounts of how bad things were, but many did not always believe these “unverified” stories. “Slavery might be bad, but surely its not as horrible as we’ve been led to believe”, seemed to be the prevailing narrative people told themselves. This famous photograph, however, once it appeared in Harper’s Magazine, forced society to see visual evidence of the permanent scars, pain, and injustice that it left on just man in Louisiana…and there were so many other victims enduring similar treatment throughout the south, but also in states that remained in the union and because they weren’t in rebellion to the union could maintain slavery. Once this picture was seen, those so-called “unverified” accounts, became a lot more credible in the eyes of the doubters.

Little is known about Peter other than he was on the run through the Louisiana swamps for 10 days, evading his tormentors who were hunting him down as he ran from John Lyon’s cotton plantation, nearly 40 miles, towards the Union Army stationed outside of Baton Rouge. After being treated in the army field hospital there, his famous photo was taken and he enlisted in the Louisiana Native Guard, an all black regiment that participated in the battle at Port Hudson. Other than this, little is known of his story, so in the new AppleTV+ film, Emancipation, director Antione Fuqua, and a script from Bill Collage, fill in the details to create what feels like a modern action film, albeit set in 1863, with influences of previous Civil War films like 12 Years a Slave, and Glory.

Will Smith stars and produces in his first released film following the “slap heard round the world”, whereby he slapped comedian Chris Rock at the 2022 Academy Awards, just before winning his first Oscar for his portrayal of Richard Williams in King Richard. It has proven to be an unrelenting event costing Will Smith dearly in the court of public opinion, as well as his having to resign from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. While Emancipation was filmed and in post-production prior to this event, the ongoing ripple effects of Will’s assault on Chris Rock continues to play havoc with Apple’s release schedule for this film. What was going to be the follow-up film to Oscar winner Will Smith’s performance in King Richard, has now turned into a PR-tinged car crash on whether this will help Will Smith’s now comeback tour, or be the film that the public gets to vote to reject Smith for his unrelated actions on the Academy stage. With Emancipation releasing Friday on Apple’s streaming platform, we shall know soon enough.

Antoine Fuqua applies the brutal violence he has showcased in other films of his such as Training Day, The Equalizer films, and more. Emancipation establishes Smith’s character of Peter as a loving, family man, who is full of faith in God, even as others chastise him for it in light of the lack of evidence in their view that God even cares for them in the midst of their enslavement and torture. As the film starts, Peter is taken from his family and the Lyon’s plantation to go work hard labor building the railroad for the Confederate Army’s rail line. As he enters the work site, locked up in a cart, he encounters a series of decapitated heads displayed on pikes of slaves, like him, who had tried to run. Each had been brought back in this state to serve warning to anyone thinking that they could get away. Should a slave try to run, Jim Fassel (Ben Foster-Hell or High Water), will get his hounds, his horse, and his gun, and hunt you down. No one escapes Mr. Fassel.

Emancipation tries to give Jim a backstory of how he came to hate “black people”, but it is clearly just a narrative excuse to address some of the political positions today from everything from race relations, to views of immigration. It is an attempt to take the notion of white privilege today, through the actions and words expressed in the film by the plantation owners and their hired muscle, and expose it for being a shell to cover up the true foundation of its modern day prominence: Fear. Ultimately, the fear of losing control, power and wealth, all of which was set up to remain secure through systemic controls and brutality. We are still feeling its ripple effects, and the script addresses the modern-day context head on, as it should.

The modern commentary within the film’s narrative are cheapened somewhat by the film’s desire to be a straight ahead action movie, more than a drama, or period-piece. To make the action angle work, the bad guys, who already are bad by the fact that they are the ones profiting off of slavery and brutality, are made to simply be even “badder”. It almost flirts with becoming caricature, but luckily Fuqua keeps it from falling off the rails, as does the strong performance from Foster. Smith, as the resident good guy, isn’t just the broken down man who has been whipped and beaten terribly, he is a man who is able to turn on a dime and do some pretty amazing things that members of The Expendables might do. It is much more grounded here to give the appearance of being realistic, like First Blood was compared to other Rambo adventures, but it still flirts with crossing that line.

Peter was a fighter based on the details we do know of his story, but I’m not sure he was at this level, as he is portrayed. Like a regular MacGyver, he finds ways to make everything work to his advantage when needed. No matter what, Fuqua did get away with filming one of the coolest alligator attack scenes I’ve seen on film. Whether all of this is truly believable or not….well, that is the balancing act this film tries to walk with mixed results.

Emancipation should probably prove to be a success on the AppleTV+ streaming platform as it is a fast-moving film with a protagonist that you truly want to root for. As it tries to be the peer of films like 12 Years a Slave and Glory, it still wants to be a straight forward action film, weakening it from being a film with any chance for any kind of Oscar push which AppleTV+ would love to have in order to follow up on last year’s film from Apple that won Best Picture, Coda. And while Will Smith does an admirable job of portraying Peter and making him that protagonist you truly want to root for, his performance may still be subjected to the continuing public banishment he has seemingly endured since joining Chris Rock on stage earlier this year.