Will Smith to portray runaway slave ‘Whipped Peter’ in action-thriller movie

Francis Akhalbey June 17, 2020
The "Emancipation" movie will no longer be shot in Georgia -- Left photo via @willsmith on Instagram

Will Smith is set to portray runaway slave, Gordon, in an upcoming action-thriller movie titled, Emancipation. Gordon, who was nicknamed “Whipped Peter”, was photographed at a union camp upon escaping slavery in the south. Gordon’s photograph displaying his very conspicuous scourged back, stunned Americans in the north.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by William Collage, the true life story will focus on Gordon’s daring escape from his slave masters and his subsequent enlistment in the Union Army during the Civil War, all in a bid to reunite with his family, Deadline reports.

Gordon escaped from a Louisiana plantation owned by John and Bridget Lyons in March 1863. His quest for freedom saw him crossing swamps barefoot for 10 days while being chased by bloodhounds and slave catchers. To outwit them, Gordon rubbed his body with onions he carried along to throw the dogs off his scent. He also had to fight off alligators and snakes during his audacious escape.

It was when Gordon decided to enlist in the Union Army and being examined that the officers saw his back “furrowed and scarred with the traces of a whipping administered on Christmas Day last.” According to Gordon himself, it was the overseer of the plantation, Artayou Carrier, who whipped him causing the lacerations on his back. They were so severe that he had to be bedridden for two months to heal.

Gordon’s picture documenting the torture inflicted on enslaved by their owners were widely circulated during the Civil War as anti-slavery propaganda. The photo was extensively reproduced and helped to turn public opinion against slavery.

The famous anti-slavery image is attributed to McPherson and Oliver of New Orleans. It was published on July 4, 1863, in Harper’s Weekly, particularly stunning northerners about slavery’s cruel practices. The Weekly was the most widely read journal during the Civil War.

Will Smith to portray runaway slave ‘Whipped Peter’ in action-thriller movie
Three illustrations showing Peter after his escape, the welts from being whipped upon his back, and in uniform after he had joined the Union Army, featured in McPherson and Oliver in July, 1863 via Library of Congress

“It was the first viral image of the brutality of slavery that the world saw,” Fuqua told Deadline. “Which is interesting, when you put it into perspective with today and social media and what the world is seeing, again. You can’t fix the past, but you can remind people of the past and I think we have to, in an accurate, real way. We all have to look for a brighter future for us all, for everyone. That’s one of the most important reasons to do things right now, is show our history. We have to face our truth before we can move forward.”

Fuqua also revealed the movie is based off “historical documents” and “information from Peter’s own diaries that he kept.”

“It’s based on historical fact,” he said. “When I read the script, I thought, what an amazing journey, a heartbreaking and heart-racing film to have an opportunity to make. It’s rare to have a film that, on the entertainment side, has action that I’ve never seen before, real action, a guy running through the swamps for his life, wrestling with alligators and snakes, being chased by hounds, then joining the Civil War, fighting against the Confederate army. Not for revenge – it’s not a revenge film – but just to get home to his family, and he was fighting for freedom. Just on that basis alone, I thought the film should be made on an epic scale.”

Fuqua, who believes the upcoming project is unorthodox as compared to other slavery movies, explained why Smith perfectly fits into the role.

“For me, there has always been this thing about most films I’ve seen about slaves. It always involves being saved by someone else, as opposed to…how I feel about it, is he would do everything possible to escape, to be free and then to get back to his family. I haven’t seen this film, this character, before,” he said.

“Will Smith is perfect for it. He has all the qualities to do it. He’s at a place in his life where, we know Will’s charming and a talented actor and that he’s physical and we’ve seen him go really deep in other films. When I sat down with Will, we both talked about taking our skill sets to another level for this one, and giving ourselves completely to it in an honest and fair, true way. An actor’s portrayal as close as the film could get to this world. For me, it probably going to be one of the most important films I will make, in my life.”

Emancipation is scheduled to go into production early next year.

Last Edited by:Francis Akhalbey Updated: April 13, 2021


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