In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in these movies: Emancipation, Bonnie and Clyde, and I, Tonya.
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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
January 1st, 1863. Louisiana.
Our first movie this week opens with text telling us the significance of the date as it says:
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed enslaved people in rebellious states to be free.
It goes on to say that 350,000 enslaved people in Louisiana faced a choice to remain in bondage and wait for the Union army to liberate them or take freedom for themselves.
With the text off the screen, we can see an overhead view of what looks like swampland. And since the movie just mentioned Louisiana, I’m guessing these are the swamps of Louisiana.
It’s daytime, although the movie is stylized to be very desaturated. It’s not quite a black and white movie, but it almost looks that way. The movie cuts to another angle of the swamp as the camera glides along over the trees and water. With each camera cut we get a little closer to the ground until we’re flying through the trees themselves. We see more cuts of swampland as the camera continues to fly through. The trees are filled with Spanish moss making it difficult, but not impossible, for the sun to get through.
In the next shot, we’re no longer flying through the swamp although we can see a bunch of trees on the right side of the frame. On the left side is farmland that’s dotted with a number of people working on it. Four horse drawn carts are being drawn along a dirt road, presumably to gather whatever is being harvested from the farm.
As the camera gets closer to the ground, we can tell this is a slave plantation. The workers on the farm are all Black men, women, and children. A white man on horseback carrying a rifle watches them carefully as he walks by. The camera cuts a few more times and we can see they’re picking cotton from the plants, putting them into baskets and then placing them onto the horse drawn carts we saw a moment ago.
The camera cuts again and this time a different kind of horse drawn cart makes its way past the slaves in the field. This cart has bars like a prison, and some men are already inside.
Another camera cut and we can see Will Smith’s character, Peter, as he’s talking to his wife and children. They’re inside a cabin. Peter is rubbing his wife’s feet as he talks to her saying things like the Lord’s love endures forever, and He has become my salvation. Other than Peter’s voice, things are quiet.
The silence is broken as two armed white men enter the front door. They order Peter to go with them. He gets up to go, but then turns back to give his wife and children one last hug. One of the men grabs at Peter, and Peter throws the man off him. The other white man joins what’s now a fight as they force Peter from the room. In the doorway, Peter’s grip is so strong that he rips off some boards from the house as now three men are pulling him outside.
The fight finally stops when one of the men points a pistol to Peter’s wife’s head. He stops resisting. The man puts the pistol away and Peter is escorted into the prison cart. A well-dressed white man on a horse is watching this. I’m assuming he’s the plantation’s owner, because he tells the prison cart driver to pass along a message to General Beall that if he is to impress anymore of his property, he’ll take it up with Jefferson Davis himself.
The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Emancipation
That sequence comes from the 2022 movie called Emancipation. And right away, I’ll tell you the event that I described probably didn’t happen this week in history. But, as you can tell from the text at the beginning, it was kicked off by the event that happened this week in history when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863.
The reason I said it probably didn’t happen this week in history is because it’s not likely the scenes with Peter being forced away from his family happened on the same day as the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
With that said, while the movie is based on a true story, it’s also one of those kinds of movies that has to fill in a lot of gaps because we simply don’t know a lot of what really happened. For example, the brief mention of General Beall. I’m guessing that’s talking about William Beall, who really was a general for the Confederates during the Civil War who commanded troops in Louisiana, among other places during the war. But, of course, the movie doesn’t mention that. The other name mentioned, Jefferson Davis, was the President of the Confederate States of America—which is the country the rebels were trying to establish during the Civil War.
When it comes to the movie’s main character, though, it’s probably more likely that the real person’s name was Gordon and not Peter like Will Smith’s character is called in the movie. The name Peter came about because he would come to be known by many as “Whipped Peter.”
But one big reason why it probably wasn’t on January 1st, was because Gordon showed up at a Union soldier encampment near Baton Rouge, Louisiana in March or April of 1863. When he got there, he told the Union soldiers he’d been brutally whipped and nearly died; after being in a coma for two months. That’s what made him finally decide to try and escape. Then he managed to escape and spent another 10 days in the Louisiana swamps on the run from slave catchers before he stumbled into the Union soldier’s camp.
When he got there, he was nearly dead—exhausted from the chase, and nearly starved to death—so he was sent to the doctor. That’s when he took off his shirt to reveal the scars on his back. A photograph was taken. You can see that photograph with the link in the show notes.
As the photo of Gordon’s scarred back was reprinted around the nation, many people who saw it simply didn’t believe it. They thought it was fake. As they say today, fake news. They refused to believe that a Black man could be a reliable witness to his own experiences, so they didn’t believe even the photographic evidence of it.
But, of course, it wasn’t fake. And not everyone questioned the reality of the photo.
With the timing of the photograph coming mere months after the Emancipation Proclamation, it was used to show the horrors of slavery and, in many cases, helped silenced critics of the war who had started to question if the war effort was worth it.
In July of 1863, Gordon’s photo was published alongside a photo of him in a Union uniform because, you see, almost immediately upon reaching freedom he was so overwhelmed by seeing other Black men in Union uniforms, he also volunteered to enlist and join the Union army.
If you want to see Gordon’s story as it’s portrayed in the movie, check out the 2022 film called Emancipation. We started our segment today at the very beginning of the movie, although we can see the photograph of Gordon being taken near the end of the movie, along with the rest of his escape story throughout, so really, I’d recommend watching the whole thing.
January 5th, 1930. West Dallas, Texas.
Our next movie opens with an extreme closeup on the lips of a woman. They’re bright red, and she’s pushing them together as if she’s just put on red lipstick and is spreading it around evenly. Then, the camera follows the lips as she turns to look in the mirror. Now we can see this is Faye Dunaway’s character, Bonnie Parker. She smiles at herself in the mirror briefly before looking closer. Then, she gets up and turns around. She lays down on the bed in the room, pounding the bars at the foot of the bed in frustration.
After a moment, she gets up again, and walks across the small room to her dresser. At this point we can see that she’s not wearing any clothes. She pulls open the dresser drawer to pull out some clothes. Then she pauses for a moment, exhaling with a big sigh.
The camera cuts now to an overhead angle of a man looking at a car. He’s wearing a white hat and a brown suit—one might say he’s rather well dressed.
Back inside, Bonnie decides not to put on her dress and instead wanders over to the window. Looking down, she notices the man with the white hat by the car. He pokes his head into the open driver’s side window.
From what we can now tell is the second-story window overhead—that’s why we’re seeing an overhead angle of the man—Bonnie calls out.
“Hey, boy! What’re you doing with my momma’s car?”
The voice catches the man’s attention, and he looks up to see a naked woman looking at him. The wooden window frame is cleverly placed as she looks out the window at him down below.
When he sees the woman behind the voice, he smiles. He doesn’t say anything. She tells him to wait there, and then leaves the window. We can see her rush to her closet to pull out a different dress and hastily put it on as she rushes down the stairs.
A moment later, she goes out the front door to confront the man. She scolds him for trying to steal an old lady’s automobile. He denies that’s what he was trying to do, but rather says he was just thinking of buying one for himself. She laughs at this, telling him that he doesn’t have enough money to buy dinner let alone a car.
With a big smile on his face, he says he has enough to buy her a Coke if she wants to go into town with him.
The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie Bonnie and Clyde
That sequence comes from the 1967 movie called Bonnie and Clyde. The event it’s depicting is when Bonnie Parker met Clyde Barrow for the first time, which happened this week in history on January 5th, 1930.
And that is not at all accurate to what really happened.
But don’t take it from me…John Neal Phillips is a well-known expert on Bonnie and Clyde, and when I had a chat with him back on episode #195, I asked just how well the movie depicts the event that happened this week in history.
Here’s a clip from that episode.
The movie opens by showing how Bonnie and Clyde meet. It seems to be sort of a chance meeting when she catches Clyde stealing Bonnie’s mother’s car in 1931. The two end up walking into town together and almost immediately, we can tell that she’s smitten by him. Right away. We see the two committing a crime. It happens. Bonnie asks Clyde what armed robbery is like and Clyde shows Bonnie his gun and she doesn’t believe that he’s actually going to use it. So to prove her wrong. He walks across the street to a place called I think Ritt’s Groceries is what it’s called in the movie. And a couple minutes later, he emerges with a small stack of cash. They run into an nearby car, Clyde jumpstarts it and they drive away. How well does the movie do showing how Bonnie and Clyde first met.
John Neal Phillips
Not very well at all, historically speaking. But that’s a great scene. It really is the way it’s shot, the way it’s acted the way it’s written. And I love the way Warren Beatty has a little bit with the toothpick in his mouth when he showed her the gun. I really liked this movie. It’s fun to watch. It’s not at all historically. So the way Bonnie and Clyde met. And stick with me because this is this gets a little convoluted. But there was a kid named Clarence clay, who was a friend of cloud Barrows, a real close friend to Clyde Barrows. And Clarence had a sister named Edith and Edith married Hubert Parker, who was Bonnie’s brother, and Hubert and Edith lives at 105 Herbert street down in West Dallas with either parents and Clarence clay, her brother live there as well. So apparently, Edith had been in some kind of accident, broken her arm and needed some help around the house there and Bonnie came over to help one time and to visit with her brother and sister in law. And it so happened that Clarence clay and Clyde Barrow showed up at the house, and, by all accounts, Bonnie and Clyde were immediately attracted to each other. But there was no attempt to steal Bonnie’s mother’s car for one thing Bonnie’s mother did not have a car she didn’t have enough money to own a car. And as I remember in the movie, that house is a two-story house. There are very few two-story buildings at all that date from the time in West Dallas, the homes, many of them are the old style shotgun houses very quickly built, because they were meant to be temporary. But people stayed down there for a long time. But yeah, the way by and that scene in the movie is very fanciful, but it’s that’s not how they met at all.
If you want to see how the movie portrayed the two criminals meeting, check out the 1967 film called Bonnie and Clyde. We started our segment today right at the beginning after the opening credits. And since the movie didn’t do a good job showing the true story, if you want to hear what really happened, you’ll find my full chat with John Neal Phillips on the historical accuracy of the entire movie at basedonatruestorypodcast.com/195 or using the link in the show notes.
January 6th, 1994. Detroit, Michigan.
A man and a woman are being interviewed by the filmmakers. On the left side is Sebastian Stan’s character, Jeff Gillooly. On the right side is Margot Robbie’s character, Tonya Harding. Jeff starts by saying the date: January 6th. Jeff says he was sleeping. Tonya says she had a session later that night, so she was asleep.
Then we see text on the screen saying we’re at the 1994 Detroit Nationals, January 6th practice session.
The camera shows to a parked gray sedan. Two guys are inside, both of them looking out the passenger window that’s halfway open and in the direction of the camera as it zooms up close to them. The driver tells the passenger that if his mind is blank, no one can pick up his vibes. Now the camera cuts to inside the car and we can see they’re parked by a huge building with an open industrial-sized door. The driver urges the passenger to go.
Inside the building, a forklift drives out of the huge open doorway as the passenger walks inside. Wearing a denim jacket, we can see by the actor playing him that this is Shane Stant. He’s played by Ricky Russert in the movie.
Shane makes his way down a hallway when he notices someone coming out of a door that has an “Authorized Personnel Only” sign next to it. He rushes forward, making his way to the door before it shuts and slipping inside.
This leads to another hallway, and there are a bunch of people milling around. No one seems to be paying attention to him, they’re all just going about their own business. After accidentally bumping into someone, he turns and goes down yet another hallway. This hallway doesn’t have as much light, and it gets a little dark as he nears some curtains. Pushing them aside, we can see a huge ice rink on the other side.
There are a bunch of skaters on the rink, and a few people in the stadium-style seating in the arena. Looking up at a man in the seats near him, Shane asks which one of the skaters is Kerrigan. The man in the seats points to an ice skater on the rink. Caitlin Carver’s version of Nancy Kerrigan skates closer to the camera as she reaches the edge of the rink.
When she gets off the ice, Nancy walks grabs a few of her things and walks right by Shane into the tunnel he just came out of. He starts breathing heavily, as if nervous. Then, he follows her down the tunnel. Going back through the curtains, he sees Nancy taking a drink of water in the hallway. As he gets close to her, he pulls out an extendable baton and swings it at her as he walks by. He doesn’t stop; he and continues walking as Nancy screams in pain in the background.
The true story behind this week’s event depicted in the movie I, Tonya
That sequence comes from the 2017 movie called I, Tonya. The event it’s depicting is when ice skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked, which happened this week in history on January 6th, 1994.
And the movie did a decent job of re-enacting this part of history, although the segment we talked about is shrouded in mystery without some more historical context.
Shane Stant really was the person who attacked Nancy Kerrigan. And it really did happen in the hallway of Cobo Arena in Detroit, Michigan. That’s where Nancy had been practicing her skating for the upcoming United States Figure Skating Championships which were taking place from January 4th to January 8th in Detroit.
The movie is also correct to show the attack happening with an extendable baton. Shane Stant hit Nancy Kerrigan in her lower right thigh with it, which forced Nancy out of the championships.
Who was her main competition in those championships?
You guessed it: Tonya Harding. That’s Margot Robbie’s character in the movie.
And who was behind the attack? The assailant, Shane Stant, was hired by Tonya Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. That’s Sebastian Stan’s character in the movie.
So, to recap that, Tonya Harding was Nancy Kerrigan’s biggest competitor at the Figure Skating Championships in 1994, and her husband planned and paid for the attack. Now, if you’ll notice, I just said Jeff Gillooly was Tonya Harding’s ex-husband. And in January of 1994, legally, that’s correct. However, they were still a couple and still referred to each other as husband and wife despite technically being divorced on August 28th, 1993.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg with how complex this story gets, though, because they didn’t get away with it. Shane Stant testified that Tonya Harding was involved in staging a death threat against herself. That was the reason she had publicly given for hiring a bodyguard named Shawn Eckardt. That was the driver in the car we see in the movie, and the other guy who planned the attack with his friend Jeff Gillooly.
Initially, Tonya denied any involvement on the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. That changed when she accepted a plea agreement where she admitted to helping cover up the attack, while others involved in the investigation found evidence that suggested she was involved in the planning and execution of the attack.
If you want to watch how the movie portrays the event that happened this week in history, you’ll find it about an hour and five minutes into the 2017 movie called I, Tonya.