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“I wholeheartedly apologize to everyone I have offended by bringing a photograph of Peter to the ‘Emancipation’ premiere,” McFarland wrote in a statement posted on his Instagram. “My intent was to honor this remarkable man and to remind the general public that his image not only brought about change in 1863 but still resonates and promotes change today.”
The producer was criticized for bringing the image, known as “Whipped Peter,” to the premiere after telling Variety in a red carpet interview that he “wanted a piece of Peter to be here tonight.” The 1863 photo, which depicts the abused back of an enslaved laborer named Gordon and contributed to the growing public sentiment to end enslavement, was the jumping off point for “Emancipation,” which takes inspiration from Gordon’s life for a character played by Will Smith.
“I hope my actions didn’t distract from the film’s message, Peter’s story and just how much impact he had on the world,” he continued, adding that after uncovering Peter’s origin story with the help of historians, he worked with the film’s creative team to platform the story “so worldwide audiences would have an opportunity to appreciate his heroism.”
McFarland also addressed his growing collection of “photographs of overlooked and historically important individuals whose stories also needed to be told,” noting that a photograph of Martin Delaney is currently on loan to the National Portrait Gallery.
“My plan was always to donate the photographs to the appropriate institution, in consultation with the community, and I believe there is no better time to begin that process than now,” he wrote, less than a week after telling Variety the collection would be donated “at the end of [his] life for educational purposes.”
“These photographs, which existed before me, will be around long after I am gone; they belong to the world,” he concluded. “My goal has always been to find the right permanent home and make sure they are accessible, to honor their significance. And most importantly, that the individuals depicted in the photographs are remembered and their stories are told with the greatest dignity and respect.”
“Emancipation” follows an enslaved laborer named Peter, played by Smith, as he escapes the clutches of abusive plantation owners to reunite with his family. The treacherous journey tests Peter’s persistence as he trudges through the brutal Louisiana swamps and eventually joins the Union army.
Antoine Fuqua directed the film, which is currently playing in limited theatrical release before streaming on Apple TV+.
Read McFarland’s full apology below.