The reality that Apple wants to win more Oscars with director Antoine Fuqua’s historical action drama Emancipation is as obvious as the fact that the Academy probably isn’t going to award the film because of how largely Will Smith — the lead — features in its story. Post-slap, the cards were immediately stacked against Emancipation to make all that much of a splash during this year’s awards season. But over the past few weeks, in the buildup to the movie’s debut last Friday, it’s repeatedly felt like Emancipation’s creative team has been actively working against whatever chances the project had of following in Coda’s footsteps to snag Apple even more Oscar statues.
Though much of Emancipation’s story is fictional, its plot is loosely based on the life of a Black man named Gordon who escaped enslavement in 1863, joined the Union Army, and became a symbol for the inhumane, tortuous treatment Black people endured under slavery. As is too often the case when it comes to the narratives belonging to Black people who survived through the late 19th century, many details about who Gordon was have been lost to history. But Gordon became well-known in many Civil War-era abolitionist circles after photos of his heavily scarred back were published in Harper’s Weekly as a rebuttal to the common defense of slavery arguing that enslaved people were treated well by the people who owned them.
Because there is so much about the real Gordon that we don’t know, Emancipation takes some liberties as it follows Peter (Smith) — its fictionalized version of the man, whose name is a nod to the “Whipped Peter” moniker he was given — to war. But the way Emancipation tries to tap into Haiti’s well-documented history with slave abolition has recently gotten the film into an unexpected bit of hot water that feels reflective of an even deeper misguided quality to the entire endeavor.
It’s perfectly normal for dramatic period movies to massage certain details in service of good storytelling. But this week, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, condemned Emancipation for failing to accurately “reflect the Republic of Haiti’s epic, valiant, unprecedented, and unequivocal contribution to the cause of freedom in the face of the cruelty and inhuman system of chattel slavery.”
In a lengthy open letter published to Twitter on Tuesday, Edmond explained that while he wasn’t looking to “engage in polemics with the movie’s screenwriter, director, or producer,” he did feel the need to note the historical inaccuracy of Emancipation’s depiction of Peter as a Haitian born into slavery at a time when the practice had actually been outlawed in the country for decades.
“The Embassy of the Republic of Haiti respects fully the principle of artistic freedom,” Edmond wrote. “However, certain historical periods are of such magnitude that they deserve utmost accuracy. The memory of the sacrifices of Haiti’s formerly enslaved Africans, including its founding fathers and mothers, deserves proper consideration in a world that often distorts posterity’s understanding of momentous events in conformity with history — our history.”
It’s somewhat (emphasis intentional) easy to understand how Emancipation’s screenwriter Bill Collage might have been inspired by Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution that freed the nation from its French colonial rule. But it’s difficult to understand why Emancipation’s creative team felt comfortable trying to connect Peter’s fictional story to Haiti in a way that would fundamentally run counter to the country’s actual history of abolishing slavery.
In a recent Tiktok promoting Emancipation, Smith responded to a question about why George speaks with a pronounced “Haitian-French” accent throughout the film, explaining how “just before the Haitian Revolution, a lot of the slave owners fleed (sic.) from Haiti to America where they thought they would be able to continue to maintain their slaves.”
“So Peter and his wife were brought from Haiti, and that was their native language, and then their children were born and raised on the plantation in America,” Smith said. “So they were raised under American English. So, you know, there’s a whole lot of the diaspora of the African slave trade.”
It isn’t an actor’s job to unpack every creative decision that goes into the production of the films they’re in, and it can be incredibly difficult (which isn’t the same as being impossible) to speak succinctly about subject matter like Emancipation’s in a way that’s also informative. But movies like Emancipation — “prestige” dramatizations of American history that showcase the brutalization of Black bodies in order to look and feel like researched approximations of reality — have a duty to actually try and get these sorts of details right.
When that effort isn’t made in earnest, it’s hard not to see projects like this as misguided awards season bait banking on the idea that Hollywood loves an overwrought slave narrative to congratulate itself for producing.
One very, very easily could have gotten that impression earlier this month when Emancipation producer Joey McFarland showed up at the film’s premiere and proceeded to pull from his pocket one of the original photos of Gordon’s whipped back to show off to reporters. McFarland said that he brought the photo — which is just one piece from his personal collection of slavery-era memorabilia — out of a desire to have “a piece of Peter” with him. Unsurprisingly, he’s since apologized for the questionable move, but the optics alone were enough to cast a shadow over the evening that did Emancipation no favors.
Thorny movies with questionable producers behind them aren’t an innovation of Apple’s, and if the company could, it likely would go back and do everything in its power to make sure that Emancipation didn’t wander into any of this very avoidable mess. Films that simply aren’t very good have been and will be nominated for Oscars again. But between its mangling of the history it’s purportedly trying to respect and it feeling like yet another slavery narrative crafted with awards in mind rather than a desire to tell a good story, it’s looking increasingly like Emancipation might have set itself up for failure.
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