How a Famous Photo Fueled Northern Support for the Civil War and Inspired the New Movie 'Emancipation'

Will Smith Emancipation
Will Smith stars in the Civil War drama "Emancipation." (Apple TV+)

Gordon, also known as "Whipped Peter," was a slave who escaped his Louisiana plantation and endured a 10-day chase through woods and swamps before he reached a Union encampment in 1863. His story has inspired the movie "Emancipation," due to open in theaters on Dec. 2, 2022, and stream on Apple TV+, starting Dec. 9.

Itinerant photographers named McPherson and Oliver were present at the camp and photographed the welts and scars that crisscrossed Gordon's back. That photo was published first in Harper's Weekly and later as a postcard that became an international sensation and solidified support for the war across the Union territory.

The photograph has become one of the enduring images of the Civil War era, and it's still hard to see today as it provides startling evidence of the cruelty that defined slavery.

Whipped Peter slave photo

That image was the inspiration behind "Emancipation," the movie directed by Antoine Fuqua, the noted filmmaker who most recently executive-produced and directed the first episode of the Navy SEAL drama series "The Terminal List" for Prime Video.

Screenwriter William N. Collage ("Assassin's Creed," "Exodus: Gods and Kings") decided to call the character "Peter," since that's the name popularized by the photo. Will Smith, who produced the film, stars as Peter, and the cast features Ben Foster ("Hell or High Water"), Charmaine Bingwa ("The Good Fight"), Gilbert Owuor ("Montana Story") and Mustafa Shakir ("Soul Assassin").

"Emancipation" is very much a Civil War drama, and not just because the lead character of the film made his escape to a Union Army camp. Photography was still cutting-edge technology during the era, and the existence of the famous image of Gordon's brutalized back was an essential piece in the case for the Union's war against the Confederacy. Southern leaders could no longer dismiss stories about cruelty and abuse as "fake news."

The film was completed before Will Smith's attack on Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscar ceremony, and there's been speculation that Apple would either delay the film's release for a couple of years or drop it altogether. However, the movie was warmly received when it was shown for the first time on Oct. 1, 2022, at a private screening during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 51st annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C and is now set for release.

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