The recently released Apple TV+ film Emancipation sees Will Smith take on the role of Peter – a slave who takes the extremely brave decision to flee a Louisiana plantation in order to avoid the brutal whippings he and his fellow slaves are consistently being subjected to.


Although the film takes several liberties with the historical record, it is loosely based on the case of a real slave named Gordon – sometimes referred to as 'Whipped Peter' – who became a major part of the abolitionist movement after a photograph of his horrifically scarred back was widely circulated and helped draw attention to the horrors of slavery.

The real photo actually played a major part in the production of the film, with star Charmaine Bingwa explaining to that director Antoine Fuqua "would take Peter's photograph and show the background actors so that even they could be engaged at such a deep, visceral level".

But how closely does the film stick to real events? Read on for everything you need to know.

Emancipation true story

Although some aspects of the film are truthful depictions of real events, there is some dramatic licence taken – not least in calling Smith's character Peter. Although he did become colloquially known as 'Whipped Peter', it is believed that the actual slave whose photograph drew attention to the barbaric conditions slaves were being forced to live under was in fact called Gordon.

Interestingly, a character called Gordon does also appear in Emancipation – fleeing the plantation alongside Peter – but the pair soon become separate, before reuniting at a Union camp in Baton Rouge later in the runtime.

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The process of deciphering how much of the story is true is made all the more complex by the conflicting historical reports about Gordon. An article that was initially published in Harper's Weekly in 1883 contained three separate pictures all claiming to show Gordon alongside a narrative that described his escape from slavery and enlistment in the Union Army.

Whereas many historians have accepted this version of events, others have suggested that it is fabricated and embellished – and that the photos were actually of two different men named Gordon and Peter. Whichever version of events is true, there can be no doubt that the photographs of Gordon's back were hugely historically significant and it can safely be said that the film is definitely not exaggerating their importance.

That said, there are other aspects of the film which shouldn't necessarily be taken at face value. For example, there is no evidence that some of the exploits we see Peter achieve in the film – such as his successful wrestling match with an alligator – actually did happen, while the conditions of his escape are also slightly altered.

In real life, the whipping that drove Gordon to attempt an escape allegedly left him in a coma for two months – made all the more horrific by the fact the plantation owner would repeatedly pour salt water over the wounds, whereas this is not depicted in the film. The overseer that appears in Emancipation, named Jim Fassel and played by Ben Foster, is a fictional character – although the film's writer William N Collage very much based him on real plantation overseers.

Charmaine Bingwa as Dodienne in Emancipation
Charmaine Bingwa as Dodienne in Emancipation. Apple

Regardless of which specific details are explicitly based on the historical record, director Antoine Fuqua was very keen to ensure a certain authenticity came across in his movie – including filming scenes on a real plantation.

And star Charmaine Bingwa spoke to about the lengths she went to in order to ensure authenticity in her performance, explaining that she watched every movie on the period and read as many books as she possibly could.

"It was really intense, the preparation," she explained. "But I would never do the people that we're honouring in this film the disservice of doing any less than everything."

She also explained there was a particular research project that proved especially valuable to her in understanding her character – Freedom in the Night: Antebellum Slave Life After Dark, which was written by Bekah Smith in 2017.

"A lot of the books in history, they tend to kind of do violence by abstraction of numbers," she said. "You know, they talk about 4 million people but you don't actually get to relate to it that well, because you're not looking at an individual life. And this thesis paper talked about what a slave's life looked like from day to day.

"And what lit me up creatively was to hear about how the night was where they could dream, the night was where they had freedom. And I think you need to have the aspirations and hopes in the story to make it make sense and for us to understand them. So that was really beautiful for me.

"She [Bekah Smith] wrote the thesis paper three years prior, and I looked her up and had a Zoom with her. And actually, the most moving thing, when I spoke to her, was she was a new mother and she spoke about just what her connection with her child was like. For me, the most personal things are the most universal.

"And I think whether you're Black or white, everyone knows what it's like to love someone, to be a mother and love your family, which is what I think is the power of this film."

Emancipation is available on Apple TV+ – you can sign up to Apple TV+ here.

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