Emancipation Producer Joey McFarland Criticized for Attending Premiere with Photo That Inspired Film

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 30: (L-R) Guest and Joey McFarland attend Apple Original Films' "Emancipation" Los Angeles premiere at Regency Village Theatre on November 30, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 30: (L-R) Guest and Joey McFarland attend Apple Original Films' "Emancipation" Los Angeles premiere at Regency Village Theatre on November 30, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty

Emancipation film producer Joey McFarland had many questioning why he walked the red carpet at the film's premiere with the gripping image that inspired the movie.

Out Dec. 9, Emancipation is inspired by "the 1863 photos of 'Whipped Peter,' taken during a Union Army medical examination, that first appeared in Harper's Weekly," the film's synopsis reads.

Will Smith, 54, stars as Peter, a man whose escape from slavery forces him to rely "on his wits, unwavering faith and deep love for his family" as he runs from slave hunters and through Louisiana on his journey toward freedom.

On Wednesday, McFarland, 50, appeared at the event holding the photo the film is based on, he told a reporter with Variety.

"I have the photo, this is the original photograph from 1863," McFarland told the outlet. "I wanted a piece of Peter to be here tonight."

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He added, "It's [sad] to say so many artifacts and photographs have not been preserved or curated or respected. And I took it upon myself to curate and build a collection for future generations."

McFarland said he's a longtime collector and plans on donating the images "for educational purposes" after he dies.

"My love of history, my love of truth, my love of larger-than-life individuals that had an impact on not just some people's lives but the world, it's worth fighting for, it's worth preserving, it's worth seeking out and protecting, and that's what I sought to do," he said.

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He added that Emancipation goes beyond "entertainment" and "cinema" and serves as "a lesson."

"It is a conversation that is needed, it needs to start and continue and keep growing and evolving. We just need to come together," he said. "We need to reckon with the past so future generations don't make the same mistake."

McFarland, who carried the image in a small plastic case, said he collects these images that date back to the 1800s, per The Hollywood Reporter.

Included in the set of photos was one called "The Scourged Back," which McFarland credited as the most impactful, THR reported. It shows Peter's wounded back after a severe whipping from his enslavers — a photograph that "ultimately contributed to growing public opposition to slavery," according to the film's synopsis.

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Still, he received criticism as some questioned why he owns the original photo.

The Black List founder Franklin Leonard shared his thoughts via Twitter and asked the producer, "Why do you own the photograph?"

He continued, "Why did you bring it to a movie premiere if the intent is to preserve it respectfully? You wanted 'a piece of Peter' here? You collect slave memorabilia that will be donated upon your death? What do you do with it in the meantime? So many questions."

Responding to a fan who compared McFarland's conduct to "trading a Pokémon card," Leonard added, "Let's assume with great generosity that you do, in fact, have the goal of protecting and enshrining these images in the American consciousness respectfully. How do you carry it in your pocket, share it like this, and then return it to your metaphorical pocket until your death?"

#OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign also said she was disturbed after researching McFarland's collection on Instagram.

"Based on @franklinleonard's thread above, I went to IG. Imagine my disgust in finding that @JoeyMcFarland, #Emancipation producer, has branded his newly acquired photos of enslaved people as the #McFarlandCollection, & started posting right after @Emancipation wrapped filming," she wrote.

Another Twitter user said McFarland having the photos is "beyond disgusting" and urged him to do some "self reflection" after returning it.

"I genuinely hope @JoeyMcFarland realizes how utterly inappropriate this is," another wrote. "I won't hold my breath but wtf are you doing with this picture in your pocket? Please make better life choices."

McFarland did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.