Historian Garry Adelman says Will Smith’s forgotten movie set during the Civil War, Emancipation, got some battle details right. Smith portrays a slave named Peter in the action thriller film, who fights against the white Americans who had enslaved him. The movie has received mixed reviews for the way it handles real-life events to tell its story.
Starting at 4:38, the historian described how certain aspects of the battle, such as how loaded guns were handled and how soldiers used their muskets, were historically accurate. Check out a transcription of Adelman’s full analysis of the scene below:
I’ve been to Port Hudson several times and anybody who both goes there and sees the photographs from this place during and after the siege is impressed with the extensive nature of the Confederate fortifications. It’s a very difficult place to try and conquer. I would disagree about the terrain they used for the attack because it’s basically in a swamp. Just absolutely even nastier terrain than you see there.
Soldiers were starting to not only realize that if you could put some dirt, just two feet thick, and maybe a few feet tall, that you’re going to preserve life. To that, why not revet that dirt with logs? Why not put a head log on top so you could shoot under that, and have your head protected while you shot? While you’re at it, why don’t you put pointy logs out a freestanding obstacles out in front of your line?
Soldiers absolutely used what we call club muskets. Using their musket as a club. First of all, if an enemy’s coming at you and you don’t have time to take out your bayonet, affix it to the front, and then thrust it at them, you’re simply going to club that particular musket.
I love that moment where there’s a soldier who is actually using his bayonet against one of the other soldiers. And then he turns around and a soldier in the back hands him a pre-loaded gun. It’s all but impossible to load a gun with a bayonet on the end, so that soldier would have already shot his bullet then put the bayonet on there, and confronted by a new enemy that the guy behind him couldn’t shoot at, he simply handed that rifle forward. During the Civil War, sometimes the best shooters were up front, and they had loaders behind them. In the Battle of Fredericksburg, soldiers would have guns lined up next to them pre-loaded that they could just pop off against their enemies.
Will Smith’s character is an amalgamation of a Black soldier named Gordon who self-emancipates, and this other soldier named Whipped Peter. And it is a true story.
I would rate this clip a 6 out of 10.
Emancipation was panned by a multitude of critics for seemingly sensationalizing the time period which it was portraying. These moments didn’t seem to mesh right with other darker, more serious attempts to portray America’s history of slavery. As such, the movie ended up being forgotten about soon after its release, partially due to the quality of the final film.
Real-world events also distracted from the movie’s release as well. During the 2022 Oscars, Smith slapped Chris Rock onstage for making a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Will Smith responded to the slap promoting Emancipation, hoping the work he did in the film would overshadow him slapping Rock earlier that year. Unfortunately, the film didn’t generate the traction he was hoping for, which could have been influenced by his public spat with Rock.
Even though the film has been largely forgotten by many, Adelman’s analysis shows that a level of care still went into the movie’s battle scenes, even if they weren’t fully accurate. While Emancipation is based on a true story, these inaccuracies underscore how the film is truly about slavery in America more than a one-to-one retelling of history. The film may not have gained the recognition Smith wanted, but it appears some elements were still crafted with the intention of historical accuracy.