Is Will Smith’s “Emancipation” Based On A True Story? Who Is The Real Life Peter?

This winter, audiences can look forward to the highly anticipated historical drama “Emancipation,” which is sure to tell a stirring tale. The film, which stars Will Smith in his first job after winning an Oscar and drawing controversy at the 2022 ceremony, is based on the historical account of an enslaved man who fled from a plantation during the Civil War and went on to serve as a living symbol of the abolitionist movement.

Content warning: The historical sources that recorded the tale of “Peter,” including some of those linked below, contain wording that is today deemed offensive and out-of-date. They also include pictures of severe scarring.

Who Was “Peter” in Real Life?

A slave named Gordon, later known as “Whipped Peter” and given the name Peter in “Emancipation,” reportedly escaped from the Lyons family’s Louisiana plantation in March 1863, according to historical accounts of the time. After making it to the North, Harper’s Weekly, a well-known and widely read magazine published out of New York City, covered his story. According to the journal, Gordon evaded being found by the Lyonses’ bloodhounds by crossing numerous creeks and streams as well as by dousing himself in onion juice to cover his scent.

He eventually arrived at a camp for the Union army in Baton Rouge. There, he encountered several doctors and a photographer who captured an image of the horrifying scars left on his back after being severely whipped by an overseer. He allegedly did so after the Emancipation Proclamation permitted freed slaves to enlist in the army. There are many conflicting accounts of his military career, but one of them said that Confederate forces kidnapped him and left him for dead until he managed to escape and find refuge in a Union camp. According to another account, Gordon served as a sergeant in a Black regiment that participated in the siege of Port Hudson, the first time Black soldiers were a crucial part of an assault on a significant Confederate position. The majority of his post-war life is unknown.

This is generally recognised as the account of Gordon’s existence and escape. The Harper’s Weekly article may have been at least partially made up for sensationalism in 2014, according to a peer-reviewed article that was published in the academic journal American Nineteenth-Century History, and the man whose back is visible in the iconic photograph may not be the same man as those portrayed in the Harper’s article’s other images.

How Did Gordon’s Story Affect History?

At the height of the Civil War, the printing and widespread distribution of the photograph of Gordon’s back had a significant effect. Abolitionists spread it right away in order to highlight the evils of slavery and refute Southern propaganda that claimed slaves were treated nicely. One writer even claimed that the image of Gordon was more effective than the well-known book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe at the time because it provided visceral, visual evidence rather than just words, according to America’s Black Holocaust Museum. It is difficult to determine a clear cause and effect from that time period, but there are numerous rumours about the photo’s influence, such as the claims that it caused foreign trading partners to stop purchasing cotton from the South and convinced free Black men in the North to enlist in the Union army.

Following the announcement of “Emancipation,” director Antoine Fuqua remarked, “It was the first viral image of the brutality of slavery that the world saw.” You can’t change the past, but you can remind people of it, and I think we have to, in an accurate, real way. We all have to look for a brighter future for us all, for everyone. That’s one of the most important reasons to do things right now, to show our history. We have to face our truth before we can move forward. Which is interesting, when you put it into perspective with today and social media and what the world is seeing, again.

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