Photo of his back scene from 'Emancipation'. Image: Apple TV+

‘Emancipation’ Producer Says the Quiet Part Out Loud in Interview

Apple TV+’s Emancipation is mired in controversy, and almost none of it has to do with the movie itself. While some of these discussions are worth having (like why DaBaby was welcomed or who this film is for considering how Hollywood often poorly frames stories on enslavement), others are drama for drama’s sake (a.k.a. positioning the film in relation to ‘The Slap’). However, a disturbing conversation on the red carpet premiere of the film has sparked a larger online discussion about who physically owns parts of African American history.

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It began when one of Emancipation producers, Joey McFarland, pulled out a very famous photograph—yes, the original—in an interview with Variety magazine.

Even those who were taught Civil War revisionist history in school likely saw this 1863 photo before. It depicts formerly enslaved Union soldier Peter, whose back is covered in scars due to lashings executed by his former Louisiana enslaver or their staff. The photo was shared among abolitionists as a visceral image to show the physical effects of chattel slavery. Peter’s escape story is the premise of Emancipation, with Will Smith playing Peter. So why does McFarland own the photograph and feel so comfortable showing it off?

This is a lot to unpack

McFarland’s interest in 1800s photography (basically the beginning of photography) and push to get this film made leads me to want to give him some sympathy because his heart was in the right place. However, it’s hard not to see this attitude of benevolence as patriarchal and a continuation of the ownership of Black existence. In this TikTok, the ethics professor also finds McFarlands’s relationship with this photo and Peter disturbing.

@nicolesymmondsphd The caucasity in this one is strong. Like how did this get past Will Smith? Antoine Fuqua? This is irresponsible and needs to be called out as much as is possible to remind white people that Black historical artifacts, photos and archival material are not things to be collected and capitalized on. Citation: I do not own the rights to the Variety clip nor am I profiting off of this post. My opinion is mine alone and not shared by Variety. #emancipation #emancipationwillsmith #whippedpeter #chattelslavery #blackhistory #protectblackhistory #blackartifacts #historicalphotos ♬ original sound – Nicole Symmonds, PhD

See TikTok here, too.

The controversy comes from the fact that McFarland feels ownership over this image and spoke about it in a way that made it seem like he was the best home for this artifact. The comments about how these artifacts aren’t respected, but that he’s the right person, rubbed many the wrong way considering there’s a plethora of institutions he could work with—people doing archival work, research, and curating right now. The most baffling aspect was his comment about donating it after his death. He’s carrying the photo of this man like a prized baseball card and acts as if the past or current generation isn’t worthy of this. Someone even compared it to the main story in the Black Mirror episode “The Black Museum.”

About a day later, McFarland apologized in an Instagram post, saying that he is working on moving it into the hands of a public institution now rather than later, as he suggested in the video. Between the Variety interview to the apology, people began to know who else owned aspects of Black History. Racist and now deleted tweets of business analyst Daren Rovell resurfaced from earlier this year. Unlike McFarland, he didn’t see the issue with his obsession with owning Black History.

This is disturbingly normal

There are large swaths of cultural history that have been destroyed, stolen, and/or lost due to things like war, genocide, and natural disasters. Some of what survives ends up in museums, but most of it ends up in private collections of almost exclusively rich people. Like the formation of zoos, the personal collections of the wealthy and powerful were the birth of the first private museums and public institutions. These types of attitudes and people have always been here. McFarland’s and Rovell’s words and actions aren’t unique, but rather a public glimpse at what happens behind closed doors.

The middle ground approach to ownership is putting the work on loan in various institutions. This allows the public to view the art, academics to access it for scholarship, and museums to bring in visitors. Additionally, if the collector is a celebrity, then the museums can market the object as even more worthy of visiting because the object’s history is intertwined with a public figure. Covered by insurance, there’s a low monetary risk for the collector and lots to gain. It seems like a win-win for everyone, but the immediate and long-term winner is the “owner” of the object because as it travels and is seen by more people, its value increases. This tour almost acts like a fancy resume. When the owner sells it later (or even donates), it’s worth even more. They may even get a wing or building named after them.

Speaking of public image, pouring money into art institutions (and other forms of very public philanthropy) has historically been a good way to produce good press for bad people whose wealth comes from the exploitation of others—from the Rockefellers and Carnegies of the Industrialist Age to the Waltons and (as texts revealed) the Sacklers today. I’m not saying these two men are equivalent to these families or that anyone who participates in this doesn’t have a genuine love for art and history. However, they stand to benefit from participating in the art market like this.

The best way forward for those that really care is to help get these particular objects transported to a home that serves the public, repatriated (to families and Indigenous communities), and aid in these museums (especially the smaller institutions—not just MOMA and The Met) obtaining sustained funding without weaponizing their donor status.

(featured image: Apple TV+)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.