On Emancipation

What Hollywood has done to a much-circulated image of American slavery

Lauren Michele Jackson

Will Smith and Ben Foster in Emancipation, premiering December 9, 2022, on Apple TV+. Courtesy Apple

Q: What do you call a dyslexic agnostic insomniac?

A: Someone who stays up all night wondering if there's a Dog.

Like the punchline of this improper joke, the new film Emancipation, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Will Smith, relies on the palindromic coincidence of “God” and “dog.” Near the start of the movie, a white man tells Smith, who plays an enslaved Haitian man named Peter, “I’m your God . . . you’re my dog.” This line is meant to prime us for a classic reversal of fortune, but the contract is only partially fulfilled when all is said and done. Gods are laid low alright, but those left behind are short on glory.

Emancipation is Peter’s story: after he is sent to labor at a Confederate railroad camp, he makes his escape into swamplands, dogs and riders at his heels. The film, released in theaters last week and available for streaming on Apple TV+ today, is “inspired by a true story.” We know that not only because the opening credits tell us so but also because Joey McFarland, one producer of the film, turned the red carpet into a show-and-tell, offering passersby a peek at his source material: The Scourged Back, or Whipped Peter, an 1863 portrait of a seated man bared to the waist and photographed from behind to reveal a bundle of scars across his back. McFarland told Variety he wanted to bring “a piece of Peter” to the premiere. A snapshot from the event shows the producer courting attention, arms outstretched to display the 2.5 x 4-inch carte de visite of a man with a flayed back. (“Walking around like he’s trading a Pokémon card . . . when it’s actually the scourged back photo,” Scottie Beam tweeted.) McFarland is like little Tad Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, whose obsession with glass negatives of enslaved figures blots out interest in the swiftly tilting world around him. (McFarland has since apologized for showing off the photograph, in a statement posted to Instagram, expressing his plans to donate it to an appropriate institution.)

That is to say, McFarland is no original. The Scourged Back is a much-circulated idol of American slavery, reproduced an absurdly many times in its era and ours, in textbooks, museum pamphlets, blog posts, artwork, documentaries, Black History Month paraphernalia, and the Deadline article heralding the sale of Emancipation in 2020. The flayed man appears tucked inside the body of George Floyd on the June 22, 2020, New Yorker cover illustrated by Kadir Nelson. A little later in the summer that Derek Chauvin killed a man, Vanity Fair recreated The Scourged Back with its cover star, Viola Davis, who looms in a sapphire Max Mara coatdress that has been unbuttoned for her to wear backward, exposing the sinewed expanse of her unmarked back. The cover was shot by Dario Calmese, the first Black photographer to do so since the magazine was revived 37 years ago. The Scourged Backhad long lingered in Mr. Calmese’s personal reference folder,” Jessica Testa reported in The New York Times. Calmese did not intend it for the cover, but to the editor-in-chief the decision was clear: “When I saw the work and saw the picture, it just felt right.”

In fugitive stories, as in Hollywood storytelling, truth needs be malleable.

The film, written by William N. Collage, borrows its story from a piece titled “A Typical Negro” in the July 4, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, in which an unnamed author tells of “the negro GORDON,” who fled his master in Mississippi, evading detection from bloodhounds by rubbing himself with onions and later serving the Union Army in Baton Rouge. The piece is accompanied by a triptych of engraved illustrations of photographs that are attributed to McPherson & Oliver. The first shows a man seated, legs crossed, draped in tatters, a tricorn atop his head, one hand folded over the other in portraiture’s familiar way—“the man as he entered our lines, with clothes torn and covered with mud and dirt from his long race through the swamps and bayous, chased as he had been for days and nights by his master with several neighbors and a pack of blood-hounds.” The third illustration shows him standing, hands curled about the business end of a rifle, in soldier’s dress, his stare true and unobstructed. The middle and largest sketch is the one that everybody knows: a man with scars on his body and his face in profile. The slender wrinkles on his neck show the strain of the position, left arm awkwardly locked in something like a chicken wing, making prominent the separation between deltoid, bicep, and tricep. The caption reads “Gordon Under Medical Inspection,” as if he were a scientific specimen.

In fugitive stories, as in Hollywood storytelling, truth needs be malleable. There is good cause to doubt what is known about “Gordon,” beginning with his name. As David Silkenat found in his 2014 study of the image, not much is certain. For example, in the Harper’s Weekly triptych the man we see seated and in uniform might not be “Gordon” but an altogether different runaway-slave-turned-soldier named Sergeant Furney Bryant, of the First North Carolina Colored. And while McPherson & Oliver were in Baton Rouge around the time the photographs are said to have been taken, copies of The Scourged Back lack the backmark that would name their studio as the originator of the images. (It’s worth noting that the photo of “the” scourged back is actually plural. Three unique photos of Gordon’s back are often invoked interchangeably; McFarland appears to be owner of the one referenced in Harper’s Weekly.) Then there is the confusion about the man’s name—there is the “Gordon” named by Harper’s Weekly but also a competing account of “poor Peter,” a Francophone man who escaped bondage in Louisiana. Finally, the onion story resembles anecdotes found in other accounts of fugitive escapes, suggesting its reuse.

None of this need matter to the fable-making of movie magic, though it’s curious to think that Harper’s readers back in the day were less credulous about tales of human triumph than we are today. A pious verisimilitude can protest too much, not that there is any danger of too much reality in this case.

This is the movie we get, and boy is it boring.

The Emancipation audience will get their onions, but the fugitive’s ingenuity is buried in a long, drab tale. (That moment clocks in at about an hour and ten minutes, with around an hour left to go.) Before Peter makes his escape, the film trudges through the usual beats of a cinematic slave story: the Big House framed by Spanish moss, the cotton field and the hands that work it, the establishment of an as-yet-unsullied Black nuclear family, and a presentation of violence so fantastic it must be senseless (a man dragged behind a horse, a man branded on his cheek, a man whipped into incoherence, a white man’s lecherous and heterosexual gaze, and many, many gunshots to the head).

The whites sound like Dixie, struck racist and dumb by a screenplay that withholds from them the verbal dexterity of alternative epithets—it’s all nigger, nigger, boy, nigger, nigger, boy, boy and nigger, nigger and boy, with a side of nigger, boy, and—if I heard correctly—a stray nigra, thank God. It makes you wonder if maybe Karamo Brown has a point.

Not that Black characters fare much better: they are screaming, howling, cowering creatures, given the power of a speech most anodyne—“we’s free” and so on. Smith, whose weakness for accents can now be called something of a pattern, speaks in Haitian Creole, and accented English.

Color is leeched to near grey scale and high contrast, denying the South of its incidental splendor while reveling in other sights. Blood oozes and shines like hot tar while sweat glows white in the sun. (But the appearance of skin, I think, is the point—thick, rough, and haptic. Sharp, cutting, shadows throw into relief a history of every act wrought upon it.) Air is often hazed—by gunpowder, smoke, or skeeters. Similarly, the atmosphere is noisy with ambient sound brought to the fore: barking, splashing, breathing, and pounding hooves; bones being crushed.

Peter’s escape into the swamp is so central to the film that the environment is almost an additional character. In the swamp lies the potential for something interesting. In Emancipation, as in reality, it is fierce, a site of terror and opportunity. “There are many ways to die in a swamp,” one of Peter’s comrades cautions, calling to my mind the ecological frights imparted by Harriet Jacobs, writing as Linda Brent in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. “The swamp is both material and metaphysical,” C. Riley Snorton writes of the autobiography; it is “a space of near death into which some other quality of living is assumed out of necessity,” or, as one character in Incidents puts it, “a slave territory that defies all the laws.” The swamp is not to be fucked with. Drone footage offers a sense of directionless expanse, of eternity, of perdition. These shots present the best case for the film’s existence.

The fugitive’s ingenuity is buried in a long, drab tale.

But at a human level, the awe fizzles out through the antics of a cat-and-mouse chase, and neither party is charismatic enough to warrant their minutes. Smith snuffles along, led by his protruding mandible, a savant of the territory. “Clever sonbitch,” one member of the search party remarks, holding a red herring in the form of a discarded bandage while the man they seek hovers right under their noses, literally sunk beneath the marsh. In another scene, Peter happens upon the leftovers of a Union raid (the film wants to hate slavery, but this scene, idling as it does among the ransacked splendor and dead bodies briefly laments the lack of Yankee diplomacy), and as he’s nosing amid the ravaged finery, slurping and chomping, I wondered if Emancipation would have worked better as a silent film. Some formal feature that would ennoble a certain necessary monotony of escape.

No use wallowing over what could have been. This is the movie we get, and boy is it boring, but not in a way that leaves room for insight. Its bizarro idea of slavery comes from nothing you will ever read about, even in the historical documents left behind by its defenders. Characters have no sense of the economy that binds them and are remarkably trigger happy with their alleged property. Pistols are drawn often enough to give Tarantino a run for his money, with none of the Tarantino pizzazz. If one wished to resurrect the tired debate about Hollywood’s penchant for slave movies, Emancipation will be easy ammunition for the cause of green-lighting fewer of them.

After all, here is Smith at his least dignified, on his knees, grimed and scarred, by hook or by crook, goddammit. But do not call this his comeback role. Emancipation was never intended to be little more than insurance—a surefire means to snare the Academy if King Richard did not come through. But we know what went down that night. And now we are left with the bait. It hangs there like an unrequited joke, rotting in the limelight.

Lauren Michele Jackson is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at Northwestern University. She is also a contributing writer at The New Yorker and the author of White Negroes.
Originally published:
December 9, 2022

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