SPOILER ALERT: This story contains major spoilers for the ending of “Emancipation,” currently streaming on Apple TV.
Will Smith’s “Emancipation” almost had an alternate ending.
Cinematographer Robert Richardson revealed director Antoine Fuqua’s other ideas over a Zoom conversation.
The film based on the historic photograph of “Whipped Peter” follows Smith’s journey as a runaway slave. Peter hears about Lincoln’s proclamation that all slaves must be freed, but his owner has no plans of doing so. Peter and a few others go on the run through the treacherous swamps of Louisiana as the plantation owners chase after him.
If only they can reach Baton Rouge, which has been taken by the Union, they will be free.
Much of the film is anchored in Peter’s determination to be freed and to be reunited with his family after being separated from them. It’s Peter’s love for his family and determination that keeps him going and gives him the will to survive throughout.
And when he finally reaches Baton Rouge and an army encampment, it’s there audiences see the visceral brutality of slavery as he’s photographed – his back is covered in keloids and scars from being tortured at the hands of his owners.
Discussions ensue about whether he is fit enough to fight in the union army and it’s decided he can.
This is where Richardson says Fuqua shot an alternate scene. Richardson explains, “We talked strongly about ending it in the battlefield and him being killed, and that’s the ending.”
Richardson says the darker ending would have left the film open. “If Antoine had his way initially, there would be a question mark of what happened to Peter? And there would be no ending other than that.”
But with the film so deeply rooted in spirituality, hope and endurance, the ending of the film plays out differently. The cinematographer reveals that he wasn’t sure at what point the choice was made. But he shares that Smith “felt the necessity of family..and so did Antoine by the time he cut it.”