Will Smith's Scars in "Emancipation" Connect an Antislavery Photo and Racial Inequality TodayHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, movies, Will Smith
In the new movie Emancipation, streaming on Apple TV+ starting Friday, Will Smith has the unusual distinction of portraying a lead character whose name is never spoken. He plays an enslaved man, stripped of nearly all indications of humanity, held captive and beaten by a real-world lash on a Louisiana plantation before escaping to join a so-called colored unit of the Union Army. An examination by Union medical personnel reveals on his back a horrifying network of keloid scars caused by an overseer’s whip. The marks stretch nearly shoulder to shoulder, from his neck to below his waist, covering most of the skin.
Viewers may already be familiar with them, if not with the story of the man whose back they marred. Producers have described the film as “inspired by” a true story: the scars were exposed to the world in a photo, which became known as “Whipped Peter,” or “The Scourged Back,” which helped to galvanize anti-slavery sentiment around the nation. The man portrayed by Smith is known today only as Gordon. Many other details of his life appear to have been lost to history, but his story is an example of an elemental form of bigotry: the complete disregard for the sacredness of the human body. It would be tempting to see that problem as something from the past, but 2022 has given us ample proof that it endures.
As someone who writes about race and identity, I am the frequent recipient of messages from readers—often from the opposite end of the political spectrum as those who send me their racist conspiracy theories—attempting to press on me the comforting fiction that bigotry in today’s America is actually rare, or at least subtle and unconscious. Yes, they may concede, mortgage rejections, cancer death rates, and voting wait times are disproportionately high among people of color. But surely, they say, the reasons have to do with some combination of personal failings and structural inequality—not direct animus. And it’s complicated, or the fix too disruptive, so nothing can be done. That’s their potholder warding off the heat of reality.
It is of course true that the violence of slavery, physical and existential, is in the United States a thing of the past (at least outside the walls of our prisons). And yet, looking for proof that elemental bigotry—including that disregard for the body—can still be found, boiling hot today, one need only go back a few weeks.
In mid November, a Senate subcommittee released a bipartisan report on allegations that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees at a Georgia facility were subjected to “excessive, invasive, and often unnecessary gynecological procedures.” In a hearing on the matter, Senator Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat and subcommittee chair, described the “medical abuse” of women in the custody of the U.S. government as “deeply disturbing” and “a catastrophic failure by the federal government to respect human rights.”