Is Emancipation Based on a True Story? Real-Life Events Explained


Will Smith’s new movie called Emancipation is a historical action thriller that follows the story of Peter, a runaway slave. The story was imagined to be a dark and painful retelling of a historical event that helped turn the tide and public opinion when it comes to slave ownership. Due to that, many people are looking to find out whether the movie itself has roots in truth and what were the real-life events behind it. Before we start with the analysis of historical events, let’s answer the basic question first, is Emancipation based on a true story?

Emancipation is based on a true story. The movie is based on a shocking story of an escaped slave named Gordon, who was whipped and bed-bound for two months. After that, he managed to escape the plantation and joined the Union Army. His photos circulated the world and managed to shock the entire public, presenting factual evidence about the cruel treatment that the slaves were receiving.

Now that we know that Emancipation is indeed based on true historical events, it’s time to analyze those events in a bit more detail. If you want to find out everything about the true story that inspired this movie, stay with us and keep reading!

What is the Emancipation movie about?

Emancipation is a new historical action thriller directed by Antoine Fuqua starring Will Smith in a role of a runaway slave Peter. Peter received extreme whipping from the overseer of the plantation. The act of whipping itself left an emotional as well as overwhelming physical trauma on Peter’s body. He decided to escape from the plantation, bracing himself for a dangerous and uneasy journey through the Louissina’s dangerous swamps, through the dark heart of the American south.

It’s clear from this short synopsis that Emancipation deals with some dark and shameful themes from American history. The movie deals heavily with themes of freedom, civil rights, and justice and the fact that it’s based on a true story makes the circumstances even more bitter and intriguing.
We know that Peter (real-life name Gordon) was a legitimate slave, and we do know that the photographs of his scarred back appeared in the media and supported the arguments of the abolitionist movement during the American Civil War. But what was Gordon’s actual story, and how accurate is the movie itself in the retelling of these shocking events?


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The true story of “Whipped Peter”

Gordon belonged to John and Bridget Lyons who in turn owned a 3,000-acre plantation located along the west bank of the Atchafalaya River in St. Landry Parish. In 1863, Gordon received a whipping from the plantation’s overseer while the owner (John Lyons) was not present. Gordon claimed to be bed-bound for two months, he also claimed that he was overwhelmed by delirium in the aftermath of the injuries.

The psychological toll the whipping brought on him made him “go insane”, he claimed he tried to “shoot everybody” but could not recall the events in more detail. As a consequence of the whipping, thick keloid scarring appeared on his back.

Gordon’s dangerous escape through the swamp

Gordon decided to flee the plantation, and he succeeded in doing so in March 1863. A long and difficult journey through the Louisiana swamps awaited him and his future was unclear. Gordon knew that bloodhounds are going to be released after him, and that’s why he prepared himself accordingly. He brought onions from the plantation with him, he made sure to rub himself with onions every time he was forced to cross a body of water.

The onion successfully threw the bloodhounds of his scent and his journey continued with each passing day. Over the course of 10 days, Gordon managed to cover 40 miles. He finally glimpsed hope when he came across Union soldiers of the XIX Corps who were stationed in Baton Rouge.

Will smith in emancipation

A doctor stationed in the camp at the time gave him a medical examination, Gordon was extremely coherent and steady when he was giving them the retelling of his events. The medical examiner took photographs of keloid scarring on his back, which resulted in shocking images that circled the media at the time.

The images were used as a pro-abolitionist argument and a piece of further evidence that slaves were treated unhumanly and viciously by the same people that called themselves their masters.
The general public received the images with unease, no one was prepared to see another living, breathing human being in such a state.
To this day, the photo of Gordon’s scarred back remains one of the most impactful and infamous photos of the American Civil War era.

Gordon joined the Union Army

Three months after the Emancipation Proclamation Gordon joined the Union Army. He served as a guide for a time, until one faithful expedition during which he was taken as a prisoner of war by the Confederate army. Now a free man, he once again received sub-human treatment, he was bound, beaten, and left for dead. Luck once again smiled at him, as he managed to survive the heavy beatings and the swamps. He again escaped and crossed the Union lines.


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It didn’t take for Gordon to enlist once again in the U.S. Colored Troops Civil War unit. He took up arms for the just cause once again and this time he took part in the Siege of Port Hudson in 1863. Gordon at the time held the rank of a Sergeant.

Union army emancipation

As you can see Emancipation is based on heartbreaking but revolutionary events that sure affected the image of slaves in the general public. Gordon is remembered to this day as one of the most important symbols for the cause of the abolitionist movement in Civil War America. The movie itself was released in select cinemas on December 2, 2022. If you’re waiting for the movie to release on its native streaming platform Apple TV+ you’re going to have to put off your viewing until December 9, 2022.

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