Emancipation producer criticized for bringing photo of enslaved man to red carpet

The new Will Smith movie Emancipation is based on the true story of an enslaved man who escaped bondage in the midst of the Civil War, and producer Joey McFarland wants viewers to know that. Walking the red carpet at the film's premiere on Wednesday, McFarland brought along the historical photo known as "The Scourged Back," which inspired the film's narrative and is part of his private collection. This action has brought McFarland some fierce criticism online.

"This is the original photograph from 1863," McFarland told Variety on the red carpet as he brandished the small picture from a pocket case. "I wanted a piece of Peter to be here tonight. Sad to say, so many artifacts and photographs have not been preserved, curated, or respected. I took it upon myself to curate and build a collection for future generations. I've been collecting for a very long time, my collection will be donated at the end of my life for educational purposes. It's something I want to give back."

McFarland has since been called out for several reasons. In replies to Variety's red carpet video, many Twitter users pointed out that the enslaved man in "The Scourged Back" is usually identified as Gordon, and that "Whipped Peter" (as the photo has sometimes been called) was a name given to him by his slavers. Peter is the character's name in Emancipation.

Then there's the question of money. The Black List founder Franklin Leonard unfavorably compared McFarland to a comic book movie producer striving to profit off the fame of a film adaptation. Leonard pointed out that "The Scourged Back" sold for $3,840 at auction in 2008, but for $40,000 in April of this year.

"Let's say, hypothetically, that I was a movie producer who managed to get a movie made based on an old comic book, and bonus, I got it made with a huge movie star and director," Leonard tweeted. In subsequent tweets, he added, "One thing I might do before the movie comes out is to buy up a bunch of first editions of that comic book and try to brand them as a collection."

April Reign, who ignited the #OscarsSoWhite social justice movement in 2015, retweeted Leonard's thread and implored followers to read "the whole thing." She also wondered about the photo's place in a private collection to begin with.

"I just don't understand," Reign wrote. "If this is the original photo as he said, not only should it be in a museum like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but it shouldn't be subjected to the body heat, light, and even air that folks are breathing on it."

Other Twitter users wondered why McFarland was insisting on not selling the collection until his death.

Representatives for McFarland did not respond to EW's request for comment.

Emancipation is currently playing in select theaters and will be available to stream on Apple+ on Dec. 9.

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