'Emancipation' (2022) Ending Explained: The True Story of "Whipped Peter"


Emancipation takes us on a journey through the life of Peter, a character based on the real-life enslaved man, Gordon, also known as "Whipped Peter." The film, crafted by director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter William N. Collage, offers a sliver of hope after a harrowing tale of escape and survival.

Emancipation's climax paints a vivid picture of Peter's triumphant escape from the clutches of slavery. Fueled by resilience, he navigates treacherous swamps and endures relentless pursuit by Confederate forces. The film reaches its pinnacle as Peter, played by Will Smith, joins the Union Army, finally free from the relentless Fassel. The closing scenes depict a liberated Peter reuniting with his family on the Louisiana plantation, marking the end of an emotional and traumatic journey.

Emancipation's Historical Basis: The True Story of Gordon (Peter)

In the heart of Emancipation lies a profound connection to historical realities, anchored in the true story of Gordon, also known as "Whipped Peter." Gordon was a courageous enslaved man who escaped the brutal clutches of a Louisiana plantation, embarking on a perilous ten-day journey through treacherous swamps to reach the safety of the Union Army in Baton Rouge.

Real infamous photograph known as 'The Scourged Back' form the series 'Whipped Peter' - Emancipation 2022 - Apple TV+
Image Credit: Apple TV+

Central to the film's narrative is the infamous photograph known as "The Scourged Back," depicting Gordon's whipped bareback, a result of brutal whippings by the overseer. Taken and published in 1863 as part of the series "Whipped Peter," these stark images played a pivotal role in raising awareness about the horrors of slavery across North America and beyond. The visceral impact of these photographs became a catalyst for the broader abolitionist movement, shedding light on the inhumane treatment endured by enslaved individuals.

Credited with challenging the prevailing notion of humane treatment, this image became a pivotal tool for abolitionists. According to the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, the image served as compelling visual proof, dispelling any illusions about the humane treatment of enslaved men and women.

Will Smith posing for the picture 'The Scourged Back' as Peter - Emancipation 2022 - Apple TV+
Image Credit: Apple TV+

Abolitionists strategically employed the "Whipped Peter" photograph, The Scourged Back, to evoke a visceral response and reshape public opinion. This visual evidence, presented by those advocating for the end of slavery, played a crucial role in challenging misconceptions.

"Whipped Peter" and similar images, including that of Wilson Chinn in chains, stand as early and dramatic examples of photography's transformative role in shaping historical narratives. As noted by The New York Times, these photographs exemplify how the newborn medium of photography could alter the course of history. They transcended mere documentation, becoming powerful tools for advocacy and societal change.

Emancipation, inspired by the historical photos of "Whipped Peter," becomes a cinematic vessel to continue the legacy of raising awareness about the brutalities of slavery. As the film unfolds, it seamlessly integrates the true story with a narrative that aims to contribute to the ongoing abolitionist movement. By portraying the harsh realities faced by Gordon and others like him, Emancipation aligns itself with the broader mission of fostering understanding and empathy surrounding the history of slavery.

Peter's Union Army Involvement

In Emancipation, Peter's decision to join the Union Army emerges as a complex yet compelling aspect of his journey towards freedom. Presented with limited options—either to toil on a farm until the war's end or actively participate in the Union Army—Peter opted for the latter. This choice wasn't merely a matter of military service; it represented a pursuit of dignity and a proactive role in conveying the message of freedom to his fellow enslaved people in Louisiana, a message that resonated especially for his family.

Peter's Union Army Involvement - Emancipation 2022 - Apple TV+
Image Credit: Apple TV+

The alternatives of farm labor or military service highlight the limited pathways available to individuals like Peter. Opting for the Union Army not only provided a chance for active participation but also became a means to assert his newfound freedom, breaking away from the familiar bonds of plantation life.

Choosing to fight alongside the Union Army was more than a strategic decision for Peter; it was also a declaration of his dignity. In the face of past oppression and servitude, the Union Army offered a platform for active participation, allowing Peter to contribute to the abolitionist cause. This decision echoed the sentiment that true freedom involves not just escaping bondage but actively shaping a narrative of liberty.

Peter's enlistment in the Union Army became a catalyst for spreading the message of freedom to enslaved populations in Louisiana. By taking up arms and fighting against the Confederacy, Peter actively participated in dismantling the chains of slavery and contributing to the larger narrative of emancipation. His journey reflected not only a quest for personal freedom but a commitment to liberate others as well.

The Burning House Incident: A Harrowing Encounter in War's Wake

On Peter's arduous journey to freedom, he faced a grim reminder of the tragic consequences of war—the burning house incident. As he passed by a blazing structure, the scene unfolded with devastating consequences. The grounds were marred by the aftermath of battle, and the uniforms of the deceased hinted at the brutal clash between the Union and Confederate Armies. The haunting incident exemplified the relentless atrocities faced by enslaved individuals, underscoring the grim reality that war left no corner untouched.

Peter and the burning house - Emancipation 2022 - Apple TV+
Image Credit: Apple TV+

The burning house served as a poignant symbol of the profound impact of war on the lives of the enslaved. The casualties, engulfed in the chaos of conflict, bore witness to the indiscriminate nature of wartime suffering. Emancipation vividly portrayed the harrowing truth that enslaved people, no matter their location, were inescapably entwined in the tragic consequences of war, facing atrocities at every turn.

Dodienne's Sacrifice: A Mother's Courage for Family Safety

Dodienne's sacrifice becomes a poignant chapter in the narrative of family resilience. Faced with the looming threat of separation, Dodienne took extraordinary measures to ensure her family's safety. She chose to injure her own hand, strategically making herself less appealing to potential slave owners. This sacrifice underscored her unwavering determination to keep her family intact, even if it meant enduring personal hardship.

Dodienne's Sacrifices her own hand - Emancipation 2022 - Apple TV+
Image Credit: Apple TV+

By rendering herself less marketable, she strategically diminished the likelihood of being sold to another slave owner. In doing so, Dodienne safeguarded her family, offering a testament to the lengths mothers would go to protect their loved ones amidst the oppressive backdrop of plantation life.

Dodienne's decision to entrust Betsy with the task of inflicting harm underscores the gravity of the situation. Betsy, as the eldest daughter, bore the weight of understanding the stakes involved. The necessity for a family member to carry out such an act exemplifies the desperation and resilience embedded in the struggle for familial unity amid the oppressive conditions of slavery.

Religion in Peter's Life: A Beacon of Hope

One striking aspect of Peter's character in Emancipation is his unwavering devotion to religious beliefs. In a time where some may forsake God or lose faith, Peter clings to Jesus and the teachings of the Bible as a source of solace. His religious faith becomes a powerful anchor, providing hope in the midst of trauma, pain, and fear.

Peter's Religious Faith - Emancipation 2022 - Apple TV+
Image Credit: Apple TV+

The role of faith in Peter's life extends beyond mere belief; it becomes a source of perseverance. In the darkest moments of his ordeal, Peter's strong faith keeps him afloat, offering a glimmer of hope amid despair. Emancipation portrays the profound influence of religious beliefs, highlighting how they can serve as a foundation for resilience and determination, allowing individuals like Peter to endure against all odds.

Reunion with Family: Triumph Amidst Struggle

Emancipation concludes with a poignant moment of triumph as Peter is reunited with his long-lost family. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, after rescuing Peter, faces the harsh reality of being forced into military service or field labor until the war's resolution. After a victorious battle, Peter and his fellow soldiers arrive at John Lyons's expansive Louisiana cotton plantation.

Peter's Reunion with Family - Emancipation 2022 - Apple TV+
Image Credit: Apple TV+

Their intervention, while mandated by the circumstances of the war, becomes a beacon of hope for enslaved individuals seeking freedom. However, the regiment's subsequent fate reveals the complexities of the era, where even those fighting for liberty were not entirely free from the constraints of their time.

Upon reaching John Lyons's plantation, the enslaved men and women experience a transformative moment of liberation. The proclamation of freedom echoes Abraham Lincoln's declaration, officially ending slavery. Emancipation vividly captures the emotional reunion as Peter, amidst the jubilation of newfound freedom, searches for his wife and children.

Abraham Lincoln's declaration, emphasizing that "All persons held as slaves… shall be free," becomes a landmark moment in the abolition of slavery. The repercussions are felt nationwide, with over 400,000 black men and women seizing the opportunity to escape to freedom. The significance of this historical shift is commemorated annually on June 19th, known as Juneteenth, recognizing the liberation of over 4 million enslaved people.

Filmmaking Choices: Historical Gaps & Ommision

In crafting the cinematic depiction of Peter's escape and enlistment in the Union Army, director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter William N. Collage faced the challenge of navigating historical gaps. To bring authenticity to Peter's story, the filmmakers collaborated with historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar. This collaboration allowed for a respectful and informed portrayal, filling in the narrative blanks while staying true to the essence of Gordon's courageous journey.

Peter with his family - Emancipation 2022 - Apple TV+
Image Credit: Apple TV+

While Emancipation draws from historical truths, it acknowledges the necessity of creative liberties to tell a compelling narrative. The film commences with Will Smith's portrayal of Peter, separated from his family after being purchased by a new owner. Though certain subplots, such as Peter's motivation to escape and rescue his family, might lack explicit historical confirmation, they serve as powerful elements to drive the emotional core of the story.

One notable omission is Peter's capture by Confederate soldiers, a pivotal event in Gordon's actual account. The decision to exclude this episode may stem from a desire to streamline the narrative, avoiding additional hardships for Peter, particularly as the story approaches its conclusion. However, Emancipation intertwines historical accuracy with the creative nuances required for effective storytelling.

Emancipation's Message: Slavery's Horror

Emancipation, in tandem with the historical context of "Whipped Peter," brings to light the horrifying realities of slavery. The film serves as a visual medium to convey the brutalities faced by individuals like Peter, dispelling any illusions about the nature of their plight. Through compelling storytelling, Emancipation echoes the impactful use of imagery in historical advocacy.

Emancipation's narrative emphasizes the illusion of choice in the face of systemic violence. Peter's given options—fight in the Union Army or return to a farm—underscore the harsh reality that freedom must be actively pursued. The film poignantly portrays that oppressors and those in power won't willingly relinquish control, necessitating a determined struggle for liberty.

Emancipation, while portraying historical events, transcends its period setting to underscore the enduring struggle for freedom. The film sheds light on the obstacles faced by African Americans in their relentless pursuit of liberty. Through Peter's unwavering perseverance, Emancipation becomes a poignant reflection of the ongoing fight for freedom that transcends historical boundaries.

The combination of historical evidence, visual advocacy, and cinematic storytelling converges in Emancipation to deliver a powerful message about the horror of slavery, the transformative role of imagery, and the enduring struggle for freedom that resonates across time.

Watch 'Emancipation' on Apple TV+.

'Emancipation' (2022) Ending Explained The True Story of Whipped Peter

Author: Jaimy Green

Author/Writer - Jaimy Green

Introducing Jaimy Green, the nature-loving dynamo! She's a master of the great outdoors, from hiking to hilltop conquests, and her Movies & TV shows obsession is second to none. Jaimy's life is a whirlwind of passions, and she spends every moment doing what she loves. By day, a responsible citizen, but by night, she's an Entertainment superhero!

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