A trailer for Will Smith’s first post-slap movie, Emancipation, dropped earlier this week. The film is based on the true story of “Whipped Peter,” who escaped slavery and fled north, ultimately joining the Union army. Historians say brutal photographs of Peter’s back shifted some white Northerners' views on the war and slavery and moved many of them, along with freedmen, to enlist in the army to fight in favor of abolition. It’s already begun, but in the film’s lead up and post-release chatter, brace yourself for the chorus of critics denigrating it and labeling Emancipation “Black trauma porn.”
Look: If you don't want to watch a movie about slavery, that's fine. Yet the casualness with which people try to police what stories Black filmmakers get to tell is bewildering. Slavery is an essential moment in the history of Black Americans, and Black filmmakers have the right to tell stories about Blackness in all shapes and forms—trauma, tragedy, triumph, and everything in between. With all that said, Emancipation does look a little suspect once you take a look under the hood at who's else is working on this thing.
While Emancipation stars Will Smith, notably a Black man, and is directed by Antoine Fuqua, notably a Black man as well, the film is written by Bill Collage, notably a white man. This is not just your run-of-the-mill white guy screenwriter; it’s a man who helped write Exodus: Gods and Kings, a film in which Christian Bale depicts Moses.
Regardless, we should all reserve some judgment until we've actually seen the movie (for those who decide to) and give grace to Black creators who want to tell stories about the many facets of Black life. Face it, being Black in America is a traumatic experience. If a Black storyteller is lucky enough to stick around for a while, eventually, they’re going to want to spill their guts about the harm this country has done to us.
And besides, this is a Will Smith movie. Just how brutal, honest, and ugly can it possibly get? We'll all find out when it hits theaters on Dec. 2, one week before it begins streaming on Dec. 9 on Apple TV+.