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‘Emancipation’: How far is too far when it comes to subjecting Black audiences to trauma? Experts offer their opinions.

Will Smith’s “Emancipation” depicts the violence used to maintain racial hierarchy in plantation-era America, with slave heads mounted on sticks, bodies hanging from trees, and death from labour exhaustion.
The Antoine Fuqua-directed movie (now streaming on Apple TV+) is about a historic 1863 photo, known as “The Scourged Back” or “Whipped Peter,” of a real-life enslaved man named Gordon. His lacerated back galvanised Northerners to condemn the continuation of slavery in the South after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s not surprising that the film is graphic, given the nature of the image. “Emancipation” focuses on Peter (Smith) learning that slavery has been abolished. After escaping plantation master Jim Fassel, he and fellow runaway slaves Gordon (Gilbert Owuor) and John (Michael Luwoye) navigate the treacherous swamps of Louisiana in search of the Union army (Ben Foster).

“There’s a propulsive quality to the film, especially with Peter on the run,” writes Brian Truitt of USA TODAY in his review.

“Yet it’s not an easy watch, with images of decapitated heads, whips and screams, and other horrific traumas experienced by enslaved people at the time.”

On Twitter, there were scoffs about “another slavery movie,” and Smith admitted that his daughter Willow was sceptical. “My daughter asked me, ‘Daddy, do we really need another slave movie?'” he told “The Daily Show” in November. “‘Baby, I promised you I wouldn’t make a slave movie,’ I said. quo quo quo quo quo quo quo quo quo quo quo quo,
According to experts, the “fatigue” of trauma should not outweigh the importance of telling stories about slavery. This is especially true at a time when race education is being debated. However, the level of violence will influence how consumers perceive the message: What is the limit?

“I am of the opinion that these films are just necessary, much like movies that touch on the Holocaust experience that one should never forget,” says Gil Robertson, co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association. “I am of the opinion that these films are just necessary, much like movies that touch on the Holocaust experience that one should never forget,” says Gil Robertson, co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association.

“We need to understand the full extremity of what slavery was and still is,” he says, as the only way to “gain the momentum and support behind making sure that the tradition of slavery is ever stamped out of existence.”

People on “Black Twitter” have had mixed reactions as they debate whether “Emancipation” is educational or trauma porn based on violent racist imagery.
Danielle Deadwyler, who played Mamie Till-Mobley in Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till,” was chastised for her role in the 2022 film because it focused on another historical instance of violence against Black people.
The lynching of Emmett Till is not depicted in the film, though his cries are heard and his brutalised body is shown in a Jet magazine photo.

In an interview with critics, Deadwyler asked, “Do you want to turn a blind eye to history in the same way that certain people, systems, and institutions want to turn a blind eye to our imprint on this country?”
Robertson adds that there is an oversaturation of recent entertainment projects based on racial injustice, and that filmmakers should be mindful of the release dates of heavier films. “Let’s pair the ‘Emancipation’ film and an Emmett Till film with something fun and fanciful like ‘The Best Man,'” he suggests, adding more films about Black joy as a counterbalance.
“Ideally, movies are meant to be a break from reality,” he says.
“The constant confrontation of these very real-life challenges that come with being Black can make you want to give up.”

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Even if viewers are interested in preserving history through entertainment, the reality is distressing. “Exposure to and experience with discrimination can lead to additional symptoms like depression and anxiety,” says Tanisha Thelemaque, a psychologist and equity inclusion consultant who has worked with Warner Bros.

“Seeing a lot of violence, something that’s pretty graphic, and also bringing up these discrimination events can have a lingering and lasting effect,” she says.
According to Thelemaque, studies have shown that it is also more difficult for people to look away when they see something violent. “You’re going to feel more worried or on edge” with films about collective trauma, Thelemaque says, than you would with a horror film, where you’re expecting a high level of gore and have more time to emotionally prepare. “You will experience vicarious trauma because it is related to a real-world event.”

Despite the disturbing imagery, viewers should be able to absorb the impact the image of “The Scourged Back” had at the time, Robertson says, adding that the film was “done very well.” “I was curious to find out more about (Gordon) because I’d only been presented with the image and of course when you see it it causes you to think, ‘What must his life have been like?'” And to get a sense of that from the film was enlightening for me,” he says.

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Reviews are divided on whether the brutality overshadowed the message.
NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson tweeted that he “can’t begin to tell how powerful this is for OUR community and OUR history. It’s a story about overcoming adversity, perseverance, love, and triumph.”
Variety’s Peter Debruge called it a “essential slave saga,” writing that Fuqua’s visuals hammer home the message: “Whatever you’ve heard about slavery can’t compare to witnessing it. Slavery remains an abstract concept for many people until they witness the brutality for themselves – something taught in schools but not fully processed.”

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According to Lovia Gyarkye of The Hollywood Reporter, such films are “touted as history lessons and used as bargaining chips for empathy,” but “Emancipation” still “leaves one wondering about who Peter was as a person.”
Valerie Complex of Deadline wondered if “seeing so much Black death onscreen” was more “exhausting and painful” because “Emancipation” was written by white Bill Collage.

“It adds another layer of nuance to an already complicated conversation that digs up further questions about how these stories are told, and who is telling them. Would the experience have been different if Collage had been black? “It’s difficult to say,” Complex writes.
A similar criticism has been levelled at producer Joey McFarland, who was recently chastised for bringing the original photograph of “The Scourged Back” to the “Emancipation” premiere. (He also admitted to owning a collection of similar artefacts.) McFarland has since apologised and promised to “find the right permanent home for them and make sure they are accessible in order to honour their significance.”

Franklin Leonard, the founder of The Black List, a screenplay reviewer and studio liaison organisation, was among the first to condemn McFarland.
“One reasonable person’s honest storytelling about trauma can be another reasonable person’s deeply traumatic experience viewing it. Fundamentally, that is the nature of art. “It’s also why the real danger isn’t a single film,” Leonard explains. “It’s a system that allows a small group of people with similar perspectives and backgrounds to be solely responsible for deciding what gets made, by whom, and with what resources, even if they aren’t culturally savvy or educated enough to make good decisions when given the chance.”

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Ultimately, Black audiences should have the tools to emotionally cope with a film like “Emancipation,” Thelemaque says.
It is acceptable to leave the theatre or to press the pause button if watching at home.
“Slow down your heart rate by being intentional, focusing on your body, and being connected,” she advises, recommending methods such as taking deep breaths or scanning your body to release muscles that are tense.

Thelemaque suggests discussing the film with someone after watching it. “But let’s also not look at anything else graphic for the rest of the evening,” she adds. Walking, taking a social media break, doing breath work, drinking water, and listening to calming music are some other ways to de-stress.
Aftercare “can go a long way toward preventing it from becoming a larger issue,” she says.
It’s up for debate whether filmmakers should draw a line when it comes to subjecting Black audiences to trauma. However, as Hollywood continues to push the boundaries of violence, an emotional safety net is the best tool viewers can have.

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