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The Antoine Fuqua film tells the triumphant story of Peter (Smith), a man who escapes from slavery, that is inspired by the 1863 photos of “Whipped Peter,” taken during a Union Army medical examination, that first appeared in Harper’s Weekly‘s July 4 issue and became indisputable proof of the inhumanity of slavery in America.
In the trailer (below), Peter’s pain and suffering from the cruelty and barbarity of slavery is evidenced by Smith’s clenched-teeth character having to dodge bloodhounds, alligators and slave hunters, only to end up with a bare back covered with scars from the near-fatal whipping.
“They beat me, they whip me, they break the bones in my body more times than I can count. But they will never break me,” Smith’s defiant character says at one point in the teaser.
After escaping to freedom, Peter joined the Union Army. When he showed his bare back during an Army medical examination, photos were taken of the scars inflicted by an overseer on the plantation owned by John and Bridget Lyons. The Independent published the photo, known as The Scourged Back, in May of 1863. The image ultimately contributed to growing public opposition to slavery.
The Apple thriller marks Smith’s first major movie release since he infamously slapped Chris Rock onstage at the 2022 Academy Awards, an incident that led the eventual best actor Oscar winner being banned from the marque awards show for 10 years.
During an interview with Vanity Fair that published Tuesday, Fuqua said that no one involved in the film ever had a conversation “about the movie not coming out” because of the Oscars fallout, but that Apple has been “very careful” in assessing the situation.
“My conversation was always, ‘Isn’t 400 years of slavery, of brutality, more important than one bad moment?’” the director said. “We were in Hollywood, and there’s been some really ugly things that have taken place, and we’ve seen a lot of people get awards that have done some really nasty things. So, I think Apple considered all those things, and we discussed a lot of those things. Then, a decision was made by the people in charge of distribution and the money at Apple — and I’m grateful.”
Emancipation, written by William N. Collage, is an Apple Original Film produced by Smith, Jon Mone, Joey McFarland and Todd Black. Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Gilbert Owuor and Mustafa Shakir also star in the drama.
Fuqua shares executive producer credits with Chris Brigham, James Lassiter, Heather Washington, Cliff Roberts, Glen Basner and Scott Greenberg. The film will debut in theaters Dec. 2 and globally on Apple TV+ on Dec. 9.
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