Will Smith to star in slave drama based on harrowing historical picture

US actor Will Smith poses at the 'Bad Boys For Life' launching photocall in Madrid on January 8, 2020. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP) (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images)
(Credit: Gabriel BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images)

Will Smith is to team up with director Antoine Fuqua for Emancipation, a drama based on real story of a slave who escaped a Louisiana plantation to freedom during the American Civil War.

Smith is to play the character of 'Whipped Peter', a picture of whom shocked America and the world when it was originally published in 1863 in the Independent and Harper's Weekly.

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The picture, called 'the scourged back', showed him covered in welts from the beatings he had suffered, and was later distributed by abolitionists as an illustration of the horrors of slavery.

Peter escaped the plantation barefoot and after an arduous 10-day journey across the swamps of Louisiana, he joined and fought with the Union army.

The Scourged Back (Credit: McPherson & Oliver)
The Scourged Back (Credit: McPherson & Oliver)

“It was the first viral image of the brutality of slavery that the world saw, which is interesting when you put it into perspective with today and social media and what the world is seeing, again,” Training Day director Fuqua told Deadline.

“You can’t fix the past, but you can remind people of the past and I think we have to, in an accurate, real way. We all have to look for a brighter future for us all, for everyone. That’s one of the most important reasons to do things right now, is show our history. We have to face our truth before we can move forward.”

On working with Smith, he added: “He’s focused and is a serious actor and producer. Will cares about every aspect of it, from storyboards to the characters and the technique. Will’s a solid producer, which helps.”

Executive Producer & Director Antoine Fuqua attends the "What's My Name | Muhammad Ali" Tribeca Premiere on April 28, 2019 in New York City.  (Photo by Selcuk Acar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Antoine Fuqua (Credit: Selcuk Acar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

He went on: “It’s almost two years now from when I first read the script. It hit my heart and my soul in so many ways that are impossible to convey but I think you understand. We’re watching some of the feeling that I had, in the streets right now.”

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Screenwriter Bill Collage has penned the script from documents of the era, as well as Peter's own diaries.

It's due to begin production in 2021, and is said to be among the hottest projects on sale at the forthcoming Marché du Film at this year's 'virtual' Cannes Film Festival.