Emancipation follows the story of Peter, an African-American slave, whose picture of his scourged back became a rallying cry against slavery around the world.
Emancipation chronicles the journey of Peter, as he breaks free from Jim Fassel at Clinton, where he was enslaved to work on a railroad.
The news about President Abraham Lincoln liberating the slaves encouraged him to take desperate measures. Three of his companions followed him down the road as they embarked on a road to Baton Rouge, where Lincoln’s army is.
They all parted ways later on. Peter, on his own, spent 10 days traveling through the swamp, battling crocodiles, and living and eating at abandoned establishments.
He somehow reached Baton Rouge and joined the Louisiana Native Guard. During his time in Baton Rouge, he posed for a photo where he showed off his scourged back.
The photograph was later distributed around the world in an attempt to educate people about the horrors of slavery.
How much of Emancipation is true?
Emancipation is based on the true story of a slave named Gordon who escaped the plantation of John and Bridget Lyons in March 1863. He made his way to Union soldiers of the XIX Corps, stationed in Baton Rouge.
Gordon’s photo featuring his scarred back, which is often called ‘Whipped Peter’ or ‘scourged back’, was widely circulated during the American Civil War.
In the movie, Will Smith’s character is named Peter, not Gordon. There is confusion around this, as there are studies suggesting that the man in the picture is not Gordon but Peter. These two were completely different individuals.
Antoine Fuqua’s film nods toward this confusion as the viewers see another man named Gordon, played by Gilbert Owuor, making it to the camp.
The film is inspired by Gordon’s story, but like most films, even ‘Emancipation’ takes some creative liberties.
For starters, as mentioned, Gordon did spend around 10 days in the swamp and made use of onions from his plantation to mask his scent from the bloodhounds.
Certainly, he was skilled and a survivor, as the film makes him out to be. At the same time, it’s hard to believe that he fought a crocodile, and this could just be a creative decision the makers might’ve taken.
There is a lot less known about Peter or Gordon, and with that in mind, the makers probably orchestrated and added some scenarios solely for the film.
Another thing to note is that when photographers William D. McPherson and Mr. Oliver were examining Peter/Gordon, the slave mentioned his overseer’s name to be Artayou Carrier.
In the film, Peter’s overseer carries the name of Jim Fassel. When it comes to his master’s name, it remains to be John Lyons, as the movie suggests.
Also Read: Emancipation ending explained: Does Peter find Lincoln’s army?