A new film with Island ties, “Emancipation” starring Will Smith, attempts to piece together the true story of Peter, a slave who escaped his captors and found freedom.
The powerful production premiered at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center Saturday night, with a special Zoom discussion with producers Heather Washington and Jon Mone. After escaping from the Lyons plantation in St. Landry Parish, La., the main character, Peter (Will Smith) makes his way to the Union lines, guided by the constant distant rumbling of Abraham Lincoln’s cannons as they battled against the Confederacy. Upon reaching the periphery of the battlefield, Peter is forced to either return to a life of captivity, or be conscripted into the 1st Lousiana Native Guard, one of the first all-Black regiments in the Union army.
Made concrete by the famous “Whipped Peter” photograph that circulated extensively during the Civil War to illustrate the brutality and horror of slavery, Peter’s journey takes a turn, and he has the potential to be reunited with his family.
Mone, co-president of Westbrook Studios and producer of “Emancipation,” grew up on the Vineyard, and attended Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Mone told the audience during a Q and A after the film that although the production team didn’t know exactly the details of Peter’s story, they knew where his journey began and where it ended. “He started out at the Lyon’s plantation, and we know where he ended up — where that iconic photo was taken by the Union Army in Baton Rouge,” Mone said. “We know what was in between: impenetrable swamp, Civil War battles, and snakes, alligators, threats of all shapes and sizes. This film represents what we believe his journey must have been.”
According to Mone, shooting in New Orleans in the summer sun was grueling work. The heat index was 120°, IVs were on set to make sure crew members didn’t collapse from dehydration, and the filming culminated with Hurricane Ida sweeping through the set.
Luckily, Mone had an all-star crew and cast who were dedicated to achieving the vision of making a truly stunning and moving film.
Mone gave credit to Robert Richardson, a cinematographer from Hyannis known for his work with Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Oliver Stone. “He really worked with Antoine Fuqua [the director of “Emancipation”] to set the tone of the film,” Mone said. “They called the tones desaturated black and white, with isolated pops of color.” The dulled-down film style intended to mirror the photography of the time, and it also provided a visual journey for the viewer. “When Peter is in certain environments, he sees more color. Through the eyes of Peter and his fellow enslaved workers, there was definitely a muted feeling,” Mone explained.
Heather Washington, senior vice president of development at Westbrook and co-producer of the film, said work on the production initially began in Georgia. “It’s metropolitan and progressive in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways it’s not,” Washington began. “Around the time that we were going to production, there was a law that passed that basically suppressed the votes. Rules like you couldn’t give people food and water, you couldn’t give them seats to sit down in if they were waiting in long lines.” Because of this law, the team decided to move the film to Louisiana. “With this kind of movie, where we are talking about the emancipation of people of color, it was important that we make it in a state where people of color were being respected and treated fairly,” Washington said.
Especially for the people of color on the set of “Emancipation,” being on real plantations and re-enacting the horrors of slavery was a visceral experience. Washington said that as an African American woman, it was terrifying for her at times. For Smith, as well, the seriousness and emotionality of his role were made apparent off-set. “Will was extremely serious the entire time we were in Louisiana. Rarely did you see him joking around and being his naturally funny self,” Washington said.
Charmaine Bingway, who stars in the film as Peter’s wife, Dodienne, also felt the weight of the film as a person of color. “Charmaine also carried a lot of emotion between cuts. I remember one scene when Peter was first taken from his family. Charmaine couldn’t stop crying, even after the directors had cut. Being on set all day, it felt like we really stepped back in time, and you were actually at a slave plantation,” Washington described.
For Washington, it was the most difficult and emotionally challenging movie she has ever worked on. But the hard work of all the cast and crew came to a head in a film that Washington hopes will provide a sense of hope, despite the misery and tragedy of the story. “What I hope African Americans in particular can get from this film is a sense of pride in what our people survived,” Washington said. “We have come so far as a people — I hope we see ourselves as heroes, not victims.”
“Emancipation” was released on Dec. 9 and is available for streaming on Apple TV. For more information on upcoming showings at the film center, visit mvfilmsociety.com.