Joey McFarland, the Oscar-nominated producer who has in the past generated headlines for his role in the 1MDB embezzlement scandal, is sparking controversy once again. At the Emancipation premiere Wednesday, McFarland turned heads by walking the red carpet with the original photograph that inspired the film, one showing the scarred back of a man known as Peter who escaped enslavement.
On the carpet, McFarland told reporters that he curates and owns a collection of photos of African Americans from the 19th century, citing his “love of history.”
“They’ve been so poorly curated, preserved and protected. And so for the last couple of decades I have been seeking out and acquiring as many forgotten and lost photos as possible,” McFarland told The Hollywood Reporter Wednesday. The one that has impacted him the most, he said, is the photograph known as The Scourged Back. During interviews, he showed off the photo, and in a video circulating online said he brought it so “a piece of Peter” would be with him at the premiere.
On social media, critics were quick to question why these Civil War-era artifacts were in his personal collection rather than a museum. Franklin Leonard, the founder of The Black List, shared a lengthy thread seemingly questioning the decision and wondering if McFarland, who said he would donate the photographs upon his death, was talking it up in order to raise the value of his collection.
“Why do you own the photograph? 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,” Leonard tweeted, going on to apparently liken it to a producer of a superhero movie walking the carpet with a rare comic book in hopes of raising its value.
April Reign, who created #OscarsSoWhite, noted with “disgust” that McFarland had branded his collection on Instagram #McFarlandCollection and began posting after Emancipation wrapped.
“So many people look at this photo and they use it as an emblem of slavery,” McFarland told THR of the photo inspiring the film. “It’s a human being. What is his story? Who are his family? What happened to him? So for me, it was a deep dive. I hired a great deal of historians; we went deep into the archives and found his identity, we found his backstory, we pieced it together.”
Emancipation stars Will Smith as Peter, with Antoine Fuqua directing. William N. Collage penned the script.
The producer, who described himself Wednesday night as also being a “filmmaker, writer, amateur historian and passionate curator of truth,” said he sees the subject of the image as a hero and warrior, not a victim.
“We don’t need to ignore or hide or cover up the past. We need to protect it. We need to protect those scars, those wounds; we need to have them on full display so we don’t make the same mistakes again,” McFarland continued. “We need to curate the stories, the photographs, the history before it’s lost forever. That’s part of my mission.”
McFarland has been involved in controversy in the past. He was embroiled in the 1MDB scandal, in which billions were siphoned from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund by Malaysian businessman Jho Low.
Low used some of his embezzled money to cozy up to A-listers and Hollywood figures, including the likes of Paris Hilton and Leonardo DiCaprio. Through Hilton, he befriended McFarland, who then worked as her party booker, and helped fund his aspirations of becoming a film producer, teaming him with Riza Aziz so the two could launch Red Granite Productions and produce The Wolf of Wall Street, which was financed by Low’s stolen millions. Aziz is now facing legal action in Malaysia, while his stepfather, former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption. Red Granite eventually settled the embezzlement case with the U.S. government in 2018 for $60 million, while in 2019 the government seized tens of millions from accounts traced to McFarland, who also returned millions worth of artwork gifted to him by Low.
McFarland, who was never charged with a crime, earned an Oscar nomination for The Wolf of Wall Street, and also produced Christian Bale starrer Out of the Furnace and Daddy’s Home.
McFarland did not respond to a request for further comment.
Alex Ritman contributed to this story.