How Does The Real Story Of Peter Differ From The One Depicted In Will Smith’s ‘Emancipation’?


The 2022 action drama “Emancipation” takes us through some horrifying and bewildering events. As a viewer and somebody who is fascinated by the workings of history, I was more than curious to know what was fact and what was fiction. So, let’s take a look at how much creative liberty Antoine Fuqua and Bill Collage have taken and also analyze if the narrative has benefited from those liberties or has it led to an unnecessary distraction. 

Was Will Smith’s Peter Based On A Real Character? Did Peter Use Onions To Lead The Dogs Astray?

The character of Peter shown in the film “Emancipation” is based on a real-life man named Gordon, who worked as a slave on the cotton plantation owned by Captain John Lyons. The name Peter has been used in the film as when Gordon was photographed by William D. McPherson and Mr. Oliver, his brutally whipped back became a topic of discussion and provoked a lot of sentiments, with the photograph ultimately coming to be known as “Whipped Peter.” According to some accounts, Peter and Gordon were two different individuals, and people probably mistook them for one another due to some misunderstanding. During the same time, another picture of a chained slave named Wilson Chinn was also widely circulated, and together with “Whipped Peter,” it became a symbol of rebellion during the American Civil War. The pictures also showed the world the kind of atrocities a person of color was subjected to by white supremacists. It was an eye-opener for the people, and they realized that slavery had to end at all costs. 

Gordon was an intelligent man who knew what he was doing, and he had carefully planned his escape in real life too. Though Gordon knew the swamps very well, as is also shown in “Emancipation,” he was well aware of the fact that he would be putting his life at risk if he decided to execute his plans. It was a very challenging task to cross the swamps, that too after being debilitated to a state where they didn’t have even an ounce of energy in them. These slavers used to pet bloodhounds, and Gordon knew that he would have to find a way to get rid of them. It’s hard to imagine how a man in such a feeble physical state, and one who was going through so much torture, could think with such clarity and objectivity. According to Gordon’s testimony, he had actually carried onions with him from the plantation so that he could rub them on his body and throw the dogs off his scent. The same thing was shown in the film too, where Peter tells another runner to rub onions on his body when he realizes that Jim Fassel and his men are closing in on them and that it won’t be possible to outrun them.

Did Gordon Actually Kill A Crocodile? For How Long Was Gordon In The Swamp?

A lot of directors take creative liberties when they are making a historical drama in order to add some entertainment value and dramatic weight to the narrative. I believe that there is nothing wrong in doing so if it goes with the flow and enhances the storyline in some or the other way. Antoine Fuqua’s decision to make Peter fight and kill a crocodile was by far the most absurd thing in “Emancipation” that, for me, diluted the essence of such a serious subject matter. Obviously, there is no record to prove that Gordon killed a crocodile in reality. What led Fuqua to believe that the narrative would benefit from such an action sequence is a matter of debate. Maybe it was Will Smith’s presence that motivated the director to take his chances, or maybe he was of the opinion that Peter’s journey would feel even more nerve-wracking if he killed reptiles on his way, apart from fighting the omnipresent oppression and other natural barriers. Gordon told everybody that he had struggled in the swamp for about ten days before reaching Baton Rouge and meeting the Louisiana Native Guard. Ten days is a long time to be stuck in a treacherous swamp, and there is no doubt about the fact that Gordon must have faced a lot of challenges. Maybe, even his fight with the reptile would not have seemed so out of place if the character had some emotional depth. We get to know more about Gordon by just looking at the photo of his scourged back as compared to watching a 120-minute-long film, which does not delve deep into his character. For me, the long chase sequence didn’t make any sense, and instead, I would have liked to watch the character of Peter in his unguarded moments and get to know him better as a person. 

Was The Character Of André Cailloux Based On A Real Person? 

The character of Andrew Cailloux, played by Mustafa Shakir in the film “Emancipation,” is based on a real-life person of the same name. Cailloux was the lieutenant in the Louisiana Native Guard, and he led his forces in the battle against the Confederates Troops during the siege of Port Hudson in the year 1863. Gordon was also a part of the siege, and it is said that he fought bravely in battle. We don’t know if Gordon had developed a comradeship with Cailloux or not, as it is shown in the film, though as they served in the same regiment, it is highly probable that it could have happened. As shown in the film, going against the Confederate forces in Port Hudson was a suicidal mission, and Cailloux knew from the very beginning what he was signing on to. In “Emancipation,” too, we see that Cailloux tells his general that the Confederate army had completely fortified the area and that it wouldn’t be possible to break their defense. But the general was adamant, and Cailloux adhered to the commands of his superiors. He died fighting on the battlefield, and the soldiers who fought alongside him and witnessed his courage firsthand later described the heroic manner in which the fierce lieutenant fought till his very last breath.

See More: ‘Emancipation’ Ending, Explained: Did Jim Fassel Catch Peter? Was Peter Reunited With His Family?

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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