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Emancipation - Everything You Need To Know

With controversial star Will Smith front and center, "Emancipation" shines a light on the most turbulent time in U.S. history — the American Civil War and the height of slavery in the South. Inspired by the real-life tale of Gordon, aka "Whipped Peter," the escaped slave who posed for the infamous "scourged back" photo, this tale of courage and hope received a limited theatrical release on December 2, 2022, and it hit Apple TV+ on December 9, right in time for awards season. 

Of course, you probably have quite a few questions about this emotionally charged action epic. Who stars in the movie alongside Smith? Who's sitting in the director's chair? What rating did the historical film earn? And what do critics and audiences have to say about this 2022 film, especially as it's Smith's first big project after the infamous Oscar slap? Well, read on for everything you need to know about "Emancipation."

What is the plot of Emancipation?

"Emancipation" is a film that centers around an enslaved man named Peter who escapes from a Louisiana plantation after being nearly beaten to death. As he flees through the swamps, he's pursued by a sadistic slave hunter and forced to deal with everything from the elements to alligators. The film is based on the true story of Gordon, aka "Whipped Peter," who became famous for a picture taken of his severely scarred and whipped back. The "scourged back" photo helped open the nation's eyes to the horrors of slavery. 

Back in September 2021, Will Smith spoke to GQ about what drew him to the "Emancipation" story, despite being hesitant to do movies about slavery in the past, including "Django Unchained," which he famously turned down. "This was one that was about love and the power of Black love," Smith said. "And that was something that I could rock with. We were going to make a story about how Black love makes us invincible."

Who stars in Emancipation?

The one and only Will Smith is the lead of "Emancipation," playing the heroic Peter. He's joined here by "Hell or High Water" star Ben Foster, who portrays the slave hunter Fassel, and Charmaine Bingwa of "The Good Fight" stars as Dodienne, Peter's wife. Steven Ogg of "The Walking Dead" plays Sergeant Howard, and the rest of the cast is rounded out by Gilbert Owuor, Mustafa Shakir, Grant Harvey, Michael Luwoye, and Timothy Hutton.

Speaking to The Guardian in April 2022, Foster described how the story that inspired "Emancipation" had really moved and resonated with him, especially since he'd just finished making Barry Levinson's "The Survivor" about real-life Auschwitz survivor and boxer Harry Haft. "['Emancipation's'] about escaping the camps that America created with the African-American slave trade," Foster said. "The stark similarities that I learned, particularly after visiting Auschwitz, are staggering. We are students and, as students. It's not uncommon to feel a burden of new information, and it takes a moment to digest."

Who directed Emancipation?

Legendary "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua is ultimately the one responsible for bringing "Emancipation" to life, with him serving as both director and executive producer on the film. He spoke to Deadline in-depth about what inspired him to get in the director's chair and how the story of "Whipped Peter" is something that moved him both as a filmmaker and a person. 

"It was the first viral image of the brutality of slavery that the world saw," Fuqua said, adding, "[The script] hit my heart and my soul in so many ways that are impossible to convey." He explained how Whipped Peter's story hit close to home because of its family themes — Peter, after all, wouldn't give up until he returned to his family — and he also said, "The slavery and the brutality, most people are familiar with it. People who care to know about it are familiar with it. I found it brutal and I found it entertaining in a way because of the journey it took me on, Peter's journey. What's amazing about it is, this is based on fact and deep research."

In addition to "Training Day," some of Fuqua's other most well-known movies include "Olympus Has Fallen," 2016's "The Magnificent Seven," and "The Equalizer" movies with star Denzel Washington.

How are critics and audiences responding to Emancipation?

"Emancipation" has been the subject of some controversy. Most notably, it was Will Smith's first project after the infamous Oscar slap of March 2022. People also got angry when producer Joey McFarland brought and displayed the original photo of "Whipped Peter" to the premiere of the film. But aside from all the outside drama, what did people think of the movie itself?

Well, critics weren't very kind to "Emancipation." Our very own Dominic Griffin wrote in his review that the film is "one of the most unique failures in recent prestige picture history." He went on to say, "'Emancipation' seems almost proud to toe the line of conservatively clinical storytelling, of providing white audiences with the same maudlin recreation of a bygone era most Black viewers are perfectly happy to avoid revisiting. It's exhausting to watch Black pain so reliably trotted out in the hopes of furnishing some rich man's frivolously decorated home with more statuettes to polish."

The critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes back this up, as the film has a rotten 47% approval rating. Granted, the movie does have a 91% audience score, but at the time of this writing, that's based on less than 50 reviews.

What is Emancipation be rated?

"Emancipation" is dealing with an incredibly serious topic and focusing on a particularly dark and disturbing period of American history. As you might expect, the film's rating reflects that. 

"Emancipation" has been rated R for "strong racial violence, disturbing images, and language." We're not surprised, as the film involves everything from beheading to alligators eating a human corpse, all as Peter is running for his life while being pursued by slave hunters and their dogs. Also, since this takes place during the height of slavery, the white villains hurl highly derogatory language at Will Smith's lead hero.

However, "Emancipation" also has hopeful, uplifting ending, which counteracts all the darkness that's come before. As John Milton once said, "Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light."

Where to watch Emancipation

If you're a diehard Will Smith fan, fascinated by tales of American history, love Antoine Fuqua's movies, or just want to see the story of "Whipped Peter" play out on the screen, there's only one place you can find "Emancipation." The movie is streaming on Apple TV+. The streaming service has really stepped up its game when it comes to cinematic output, as it's released respected titles like "Cha Cha Real Smooth," "Wolfwalkers," and the Oscar-winning "Coda." Now, the Will Smith action biopic also calls the site home.