Will Smith’s ‘Emancipation’ shows scars of ‘Whipped Peter,’ slavery

Quantrell Colbert/Apple TV Plus
Will Smith and Ben Foster in “Emancipation.”

His back had been lacerated by whips, forming an angry cacophony of twisted, swollen welts crisscrossing his shoulders, rising over his spine and stretching to his hip. He was famished and exhausted, having run for 10 days through bayous and swamps infested with poisonous snakes and alligators. As he raced toward freedom, White men chased him with bloodthirsty hounds.

This Black man, whose scarred back showed the brutal horrors of the cruel institution of slavery in America, had escaped enslavement on a Mississippi plantation and made his way to a Union camp in Baton Rouge in 1863 during the height of the Civil War.

“Who whipped you, Peter?” the Union officers asked.

The man who would come to be known as “Whipped Peter,” spoke little English and answered in French – the language spoken by thousands of enslaved Africans in Louisiana and Mississippi. He told them an overseer had whipped him with a leather strap just before Christmas in 1862. To deepen the pain, the White man had poured salt into Peter’s open wounds.

They were astonished. White photographers at the camp asked Peter to pose. The photos of Peter’s scarred back, which were later published as wood carvings in Harper’s Weekly, became known as “The Scourged Back.”

The black-and-white photo, cast in shadows, shows Peter, his back facing the camera. He looks over his left shoulder, showing a silhouette of his face. His hand rests on his left hip. The light captured in the photo falls on the raised scars stretching the width of his back. The truth of the inhumaneness of slavery revealed in the scars on this Black man’s back would become a rally cry for abolitionists and the anti-slavery movement in the North.

The story of “Whipped Peter” is captured in the new film “Emancipation,” starring Will Smith. The film was inspired by the 1863 photos of Peter, which were taken during that medical examination at the Union Army camp.

The drama, which debuted in theaters Dec. 2 and released internationally on Apple TV Dec. 9, follows Peter’s escape from slavery and his relentless quest for freedom.

“I’ve long wanted to tell a story about the inhumanity of slavery,” the film’s director, Antoine Fuqua, said in a statement.

Several critics on social media and even Will Smith’s daughter have questioned whether another Hollywood movie about the institution of enslavement in the United States is necessary. Even Smith has said he never wanted to make a period film about enslavement and avoided them his entire career. But this film is different, he said during an interview with FabTV. “This is not another slave movie. This is a freedom movie. “

There can never be too many movies, documentaries or films showing the barbaric truth of slavery, a subject white supremacists have tried to wash out of history.

Only now, are some people learning about the true horrors of what happened. So much was hidden in attics, buried in swamps and mass graves. White historians covered up and distorted the narrative while building monuments to Confederate soldiers.

“We’ve never really been told the whole story about slavery in this country,” said W. Marvin Dulaney, president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. “I can go through 12 years of education and not learn anything substantial about slavery. For the first 155 years in the history of this country, they mythologized slavery.”

Dulaney, who is also associate professor of history emeritus and former interim director of the Center for African American Studies, said historians portrayed enslaved Africans as inhuman. “They wrote that owners and masters had to train them to pick cotton,” Dulaney said. “They portrayed them as folks who came from Africa with no skills. What we’ve tried to do with the historiography of slavery is to tell the truth. Africans built this country. We need to tell that story constantly.”

Movies like “Emancipation” give audiences an opportunity to encounter astounding details of enslavement, raising the perpetual question: What kind of people would do this to other human beings?

These films help peel back the truth buried in history. They need to be seen by audiences far and wide.

So when I heard about this movie, I found a theater showing the film, hurried to buy my ticket and climbed the aisle in the theater. I pushed back my seat and traveled through time, taking notes on the nuances the filmmakers wove into the narrative.

For the next two hours and 12 minutes, I watched the terror of slavery, the cold separation of families, the backbreaking work of the enslaved in cotton fields and Confederate work camps where Black men were worked to death and pushed into mass graves. “Emancipation” captures the spirituality and ingenuity of the enslaved Africans in their quest for freedom. It also captures the sheer cruelness of the White men on horseback who hunted them.

In the darkness of the screening, I scribbled notes. I stilled myself knowing the scenes were hard to watch, but told myself, “The pain I feel watching the pain on the screen is nothing compared to the brutality my enslaved ancestors endured.”

I cheered when Will Smith’s character said: “I fight them. They beat me. They whip me. They break the bones in my bodies more times than I can count. But they never, never break me.”

When the film ended, I stood up and applauded the power of the performance. I clapped for the enslaved ancestors who survived too. I left the theater, bracing the cold wind as I walked across the empty parking lot, determined to know more about the story of Peter.

Almost immediately, I began researching. I found that the man whose name was listed in records only as Peter reached the Union Army Camp in Baton Rouge in April 1863. His feet were swollen and bleeding. He had arrived at the camp with a young man named Gordon, who also had escaped enslavement, according to a letter published in December 1863 in the American Citizen newspaper. The two men cried when they saw Black men, fighting to save the Union, in federal uniforms.

“They were ingenuous enough to wade and swim through every stream on the way, twice swimming the turbid waters of the Amite River,” according to the 1863 published letter. “They rubbed onions on every portion if their body and strong scented weeds to elude the trail of the blood hounds.”

Peter’s statement was taken on April 2, 1863, after he entered the marshal’s office. The dozens of scars on his back were noticed during a medical examination at the camp.

The whipping nearly killed him. “I was two months in bed sore from the whipping and salt brine, which overseer put on my back,” Peter said, according to an 1863 letter written by a Union officer, which was published in the American Citizen newspaper.

“Look here,” Peter told them, then peeled off the pile of “dirty rags that half concealed his back, and exhibited his mutilated sable form to the crowd of officers and others present in the office.”

There, two photographers, captured a series of photos before he arrived at the camp and after, when he appeared in a Union Army uniform to fight with Colored Troops.

“One of these portraits represents the man as he entered our lines, with clothes torn and covered with mud and dirt from his long race through the swamps and bayous, chased as he had been for days and nights by his master with several neighbors and a pack of blood-hounds,” the Union officer explained.

“Another shows him as he underwent the surgical examination previous to being mustered into the service – his back furrowed and scarred with the traces of a whipping administered on Christmas-day last; and the third represents him in the United States uniform, bearing the musket and prepared for duty.”

These are the details they left out of our history books.

“Flogging with a leather strap on the naked body is common,” according to the 1863 letter to the editor. “Also paddling the body with a hand saw until the skin is a mass of blisters, and then breaking the blisters with teeth and saw.”

The torture included stretching enslaved Africans upon the ground with hands and feet held down by other enslaved men. Some had been “lashed to stakes driven into the ground for burning, while handfuls of dry corn-husks are then lighted, and the burning embers are whipped off with a stick so as to fall in showers of live sparks upon the naked back. This is continued until the victim is covered with blisters. If in this writhing of torture, the slave gets his hands free to brush off the fire, then burning brand is applied to them.”

After all the torture, Peter lived to serve in the Union Army, working as a guide. At one point, according to Harper’s, he was captured again by Confederate rebels, “who, infuriated beyond measure, tied him up and beat him, leaving him for dead.”

Miraculously, Peter came to life “and once more made his escape to our lines.”

The reaction in 1863 to the photos of “Whipped Peter” was visceral, Harper’s Weekly said, “capturing what the mind’s eye could not imagine. Letters to editors across the country came pouring in, raising a more fervent cry for freedom and abolition.”

Dulaney said the photographs had enormous impact on the course of history. “The first time I saw that image – that image is everywhere in terms of slavery – it made me cry to see someone beaten like that, to carry those welts on his back,” Dulaney said.

But Dulaney said that image also captured the true tale of the astounding resilience of Black people. “For all the stuff we’ve been through – oppression, slavery and segregation, and all the laws passed to keep us from doing what other human beings did,” Dulaney said, “And yet we came through it. We created institutions, raised families.”

Over the years, Dulaney said, historians have asked “Who freed the slaves? Did the ‘Great Emancipator’ Abraham Lincoln do it?”

The truth is enslaved Africans freed themselves and forced Lincoln to take a stand.

“During the course of the war, African Americans were running at the start – first by the tens, then the hundreds, then by the thousands,” Dulaney said, “freeing themselves and making slavery the key issue of the Civil War. This brother with welts on his back is a symbol of all of that.”