‘Emancipation’ tells the true story of “Whipped Peter.”  

After running for 10 days, as he made a desperate and determined escape from a Louisiana plantation, he arrived at a union camp, where military doctors discovered the grotesque scars of a beating at the hand of a violent overseer that had nearly taken his life. 

A photo of his back was the first time many in the north had seen the physical realities of slavery. It sparked a new abolitionist movement. 

Oscar-winning actor Will Smith steps into the role of Peter in what some critics say is one of the year’s best performances.

But it is also one of the toughest.  

“It was grueling, emotionally and psychologically, for everyone to just watch those scenes,” Smith told WGN’s Dean Richards. “There were crew members that had to just leave the set.” 

Audiences may find it harsh, with some saying they can’t bear the emotional weight of another movie about slavery. In response, director Antoine Fuqua says that while the film is heavy, it’s an essential step toward a reckoning with what happened.  

“We can’t heal if we’re just going to ignore it and want to forget it,” Fuqua said. “I don’t think we can ever stop telling these stories about the brutality and injustice that’s happened. We didn’t make a film about slavery. We made a film about freedom.” 

Perri Irmer, president and CEO of the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center, says perspective is vital when watching these films. 

“Our story as Black people started in freedom,” Irmer said. “Ultimately, it is a story of the quest, the unending quest for freedom, resilience and survival. It all depends on where you start the narrative and it also depends on who the narrator.”

Will slavery film fatigue impact whether audiences decide to watch the Smith-led? Or should the tragic lessons learned from the past continue to endure?

WGN’s Dean Richards reports in this WGN-TV Cover Story.