(Note: All the quotations this time are from the KJV because this is the version that our devout hero would have known.)
- Antoine Fuqua
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 12 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in him, and I am helped: therefore my heart greatly rejoiceth; and with my song will I praise him.
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God:
Which made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all that therein is: which keepeth truth for ever:
Which executeth judgment for the oppressed: which giveth food to the hungry. The Lord looseth the prisoners:
Director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Bill Collage have been inspired by an iconic photograph of the scarred back of a Louisiana slave to create the most compelling story of a freedom-loving slave that I have seen. Like that photograph, the film proclaims what a horribly cruel system slavery was. Shot in what I first thought was crisp black and white, the film’s vivid images, especially an early one in a slave labor camp, where workers are casually beaten or shot without any qualms of conscience, reminded me of Steven Spielberg’s great Holocaust film—indeed, we could say that Fuqua’s is the Schindler’s List of Civil War era slave and Civil War epics.
From the very beginning, when Peter (Will Smith) is washing the feet of his beloved wife Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa) while their children look on, he quotes a Psalm in English—“The Lord is my strength and defense”–but talks with his wife in Haitian Creole, the two having been born in that island nation. Then he is grabbed by two white overseers, dragged, and thrust into a cage on wheels with several other slaves. According to his owner, Captain Lyons (Jayson Warner Smith), the slaves are the tax he owes to Jefferson Davis for the war.
The vast labor camp where the slaves are laying rails for a railroad designed to transport and supply Confederate troops is a swamp of cruelty and despair. Men are whipped at the whim of an overseer, and one exhausted man is shot because he has fallen. Peter is told not to look up by one guard, and then told to do so by another, but above all, he is not to look into the eyes of a white man. Peter goes to help a fallen slave, and of course, is admonished for doing so. He develops an almost permanent frown and dares at time to stare at a white.
At night Peter continues to turn to his faith for support, and another who has been chained to the floor because of rebelliousness contradicts his statement, “The Lord is with us,” uttered to comfort a despondent fellow slave. “God is not here,” the chained man declares. When Peter demurs, the slave bitterly says that if there were a God, he would not allow them to be enslaved, that he would help them to find freedom.
During this labor camp sequence we will see the other side of religious faith, that not only can it sustain men like Peter to endure their hardships, but that it can be used to pacify and keep the oppressed from thinking about rebelling. As the slaves labor, we hear a white man’s voice quoting Scripture and urging slaves to obey their masters. His favorite passage seems to be 1 Timothy 6:1-2: “ Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort.” (Note the euphemistic “servant” for “slave.”)
It is amazing that Africans should have accepted Christianity, which could be so used, as Karl Marx later was to put it, as “an opiate for the masses.” It is a tribute to the intelligence of the slaves that, along with such odious passages as 1st Timothy (and several other Epistles), the Scriptures enshrined far more passages in which God took the side of the oppressed, beginning with the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and continuing throughout the writings of the prophets, and embedded especially in the devotional book of Psalms, apparently Peter’s favorite book.
Along with the Bible, the vague report that a man named Lincoln has freed the slaves, overheard by a slave from a conversation of whites, spreads hope among the slaves. They find out that the Union army is not so very far away, and that slaves who escape to the Union encampments at Baton Rouge are set free. Such slaves are called “runners,” but the dreadful punishments meted out to those who are caught keep most slaves from attempting flight.
Will continues to labor, thoughts of his family always in his mind, and then comes the moment when he can contain his rage no longer. He has been forced to carry a dead slave to a pit and then given a shovel and ordered to throw lime onto the decaying bodies. Goaded by the taskmasters; cruelty, Peter’s shovel becomes a deadly weapon as he chops off the hand of one guard and bashes in the skull of another. He and three others make a dash for the swamp, where for a long moment they pause while Peter figures out which direction is Baton Rouge. They can hear the barking of the vicious dogs and the voices of the mounted horsemen pursuing them. Deciding to break up, they flee by different routes.
During the slave camp sequence we catch numerous glimpses of the man who will be Peter’s nemesis, similar to Inspector Javert in Les Misérables. This character, far more degraded and vicious than the French policeman, is the pipe-smoking Fassel (Ben Foster), every bit as cruel and sadistic as Amon Goeth, the Nazi slave camp commander in Schindler’s List, though not as fully developed as that character was. He is a professional slave catcher with two white men and a slave in his employment. The closest we get to his inner life is the segment around a campfire when he narrates the story of his boyhood. A slave had raised him, so he regarded her as a friend. When he told his father how he had slipped extra food to supplement her meager rations, his father called the woman in and shot her in cold blood. The boy accepted his father’s explanation for this atrocity, apparently with no lingering recriminations or doubts about the savage racism underlying and justifying the act.
The swamp sequence is the longest in the film, with one of the slaves caught and revealing the destination the escapees hoped to reach, this in promise of being released. Of course, we know how much Fassel’s word is worth. Peter has to use all of his wits and strength to survive the five days of pursuit. He faces a large, deadly alligator, snakes, and entanglement of undergrowth. He shows a fellow slave with whom he meets up with again how to cover up their scent with an onion he has found to thwart the dogs. Fortunately he had grabbed a hunting knife from the overseer he had attacked, which becomes crucial in his fight with the fierce amphibian–also later when he is extracting the leeches which have attached themselves to his body.
As harrowing as is the fight with the alligator, the worst moment is when he has reunited with his fellow escapee, and then they have to split again because Fassel and his crew have caught up with them. While Peter hides in a hollow tree, they catch the other slave and torture him to reveal where Peter is hiding. The suspense,during which the mortally wounded slave gazes at his friend in hiding but unseen by the whites is agonizing to watch!
Later Peter stumbles upon a hunting shed built high up among the trees and discovers bits of food, a smoke pot so he can obtain some honey as a salve for his wounds, and best of all, a crude dug out canoe. During his trudges through the muck and water he continues to turn to a Psalm to bolster his spirit. No matter how filthy and endangered, his faith remains strong.
Peter also thinks of his beloved wife, and the camera several times cuts to Dodienne and the children. She reassures the fearful little ones that their father will come for them. One night, the moment that Peter has conquered the alligator, she wakes up, a mystical bond assuring her that her husband is alive. However, an overseer informs her that she is to be sold. This news is bad enough, but he also, with no hint of sympathy, tells her that her children are not being sold. The next day she will be separated from them as well as her husband. She sinks into despair, eventually coming up with a desperate plan that requires her daughter to join in.
Meanwhile, just as Peter nears Baton Rouge and can not only hear cannon fire but see the Federal naval ships on the Mississippi blasting away at the Confederates, the persistent Fassel catches up to him, reasserting what he had told the slave before, that he is his god. How Peter is rescued you will discover when you watch this movie.at a theater or on Apple TV+. The agent of rescue is Capt. Cailloux (Mustafa Shakir, playing a real, historic figure), in charge of a unit of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. Taken to the Army camp Peter soon realizes he is not to be set free, but is to be recruited into the Guard. He learns from the Captain that there is inequality in the military, but that joining he will have the opportunity to participate in obtaining his own freedom. (This was an important part of abolitionist Frederick Douglas’s argument with President Lincoln over Blacks being allowed to join the Army, that Blacks participate in the fight to become free, rather than have freedom given them.)
During this Army camp sequence two cameramen ask Peter for permission to take his picture, carefully posing him so that the hideous scars caused by his whippings can clearly be seen. When Peter asks, “Why are you doing this?” The photographer responds: “So the world might know what slavery truly looks like.”
This picture, first appearing in the popular Harpers Magazine, and then reprinted around the world, helped turn the Civil War from a struggle to maintain the Union (Lincoln’s initial reason for the War) into an anti-slavery war, convincing many formerly indifferent to the plight of the slave to face the horrible cruelty necessary for its maintenance. The name of the slave was first reported as “Gordon,” but the picture became known as “Whipped Peter,” hence the name chosen for the protagonist of this film.
The bloody battle sequence of the siege of Fort Hudson might first remind you of the film Glory in which the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, an all Black regiment, assaulted Fort Wagner far to the east. However, as the sequence unfolded and soldier after soldier fell to a bullet or was thrown into the air by cannon blasts, it was the opening D-Day sequence of another Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan that I was lead to recall. The fighting is so bloody and brutal that it will be difficult to watch for some—this is definitely not a film for young children.
Despite the tepid , and even belittling, reviews of some critics, I found this film to be a totally engrossing experience, bringing home to modern audiences the horrors of slavery (and of war) and the inspiring resistance of the slave and importance of faith in sustaining that resistance. The suspense and tension are so great at times that I even forgot the past sin of actor Will Smith. He totally convinced me of his faith, courage, and love for his wife and children. This is probably the most unglamorous role any actor has taken on for many a year.
It was during the battle scenes when a brave soldier carried the American flag amidst the front wave of charging soldiers that I realize that cinematographer Robert Richardson was shooting in color but then bleaching out the film so it looked like it was shot in black and white, because we see the red stripes standing out. Going back, I noticed a few other touches of color overlooked amidst the excitement of the action. This is a striking film to see, with some of the grim scenes of dead bodies lined up in a row reminding you of Civil War photographer Matthew Brady’s famous pictures of body-strewn battle fields and hospitals. These, along with the action scenes reveal that there is no real glory in war.
This is bound to make Visual Parables’ Top Ten Films list this year. It might not delve as deeply as some would wish into the issues of slavery, but the film can serve as a springboard for discussion of those issues, and is certainly relevant for those combating racism today. It is no accident, I believe, that I am concurrently reading the third autobiography of Frederick Douglas, and thus am seeing so many of his observations embedded in the film.
Like many of you, I have seen the iconic photograph of Peter’s mutilated back in books on slavery and the Civil War, and have wondered about the story of this much abused man. Of relevance in the film, too, is a scene in which he cries out “I am a man,” a statement found in other iconic photos from the civil rights era of African American demonstrators carrying placards imprinted with this slogan. This is a movie that matters, so I urge you to see it as soon as you can—preferably on a big screen to get the full benefit of the epic battle scenes, but on whatever screen is available because of its inspiring, as well as entertaining, value.
This is in the December issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.