Directed by Antoine Fuqua, Emancipation was inspired by the 1893 “Whipped Peter” photos, especially the infamous “scourged back” photo, which showed the back of a former slave named Gordon covered in scars from whippings (it became especially prominent in the abolitionist movement). In Emancipation, Smith plays Peter, a slave who’s taken from his family but is determined to escape and reunite with them.
The trailer offers a glimpse at Peter’s harrowing journey as he evades dogs and slave hunters — as well as the various vicious creatures that reside in the swamps of Louisiana — on his journey North. Eventually, Peter not only makes it North but joins the Union Army to fight against the Confederacy in the Civil War. The trailer then ends with a pointed recreation of the “scourged back” photo.
Along with Smith, Emancipation stars Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Gilbert Owuor, Mustafa Shakir, and Steven Ogg. Last month, the film screened during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 51st Annual Legislative Conference, where Smith spoke about taking on the role of Peter.
“Throughout my career, I’ve turned down many films that were set in slavery. I never wanted to show us like that. And then this picture came along,” Smith said (via The Hollywood Reporter). “And this is not a film about slavery. This is a film about freedom. This is a film about resilience. This is a film about faith.”
As the promotional cycle for Emancipation picks up, it will find Smith really returning to the spotlight for the first time since he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars for making a joke about his wife, Jada. Smith has apologized for the incident and resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which also banned him from the Oscars and other events for 10 years.