Joey McFarland, the Oscar-nominated producer who previously made headlines for his role in the 1MDB embezzlement scandal, is stirring up controversy again. At Liberation premiered Wednesday, McFarland turned heads by walking the red carpet with the original photograph that inspired the film, one that shows the scarred back of a man named Peter who escaped slavery.
On the carpet, McFarland told reporters that he curates and owns a collection of 19th-century portraits of African Americans, citing his “love of history.”
“They have been so poorly maintained, preserved and protected.” And so for the last two decades, I’ve been looking for and acquiring as many forgotten and lost images as possible,” McFarland said. The Hollywood Reporter Wednesday. The one that has influenced him the most, he said, is the photograph known as The plagued back. In interviews, he showed the film, and in a video circulated online, he said he brought it so that “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, founder of The Black List, shared a lengthy thread that seemed to question the decision, wondering if McFarland, who said he would donate his collection upon his death, was talking it up to increase the collection’s value.
“Why do you have the picture? Why would you bring it to a movie premiere if the intention is to preserve it respectfully? You wanted a “piece of Peter” here? Do you collect slave memorabilia that will be given away upon your death? What do you do with it in the meantime? So many questions,” Leonard tweetedcontinues to apparently imitate it to the producer of a superhero film walking the carpet with a rare comic in hopes of increasing its value.
April Reign, who created #OscarsSoWhite, commented with “disgust” that McFarland had tagged his collection on Instagram #McFarlandCollection and started posting after that Liberation the wrapped
“So many people look at this image and they use it as a symbol of slavery,” McFarland said THR of the film that inspires the film. “This is a person. What is his story? Who is his family? What happened to him? So for me it was a deep dive. I hired a lot of historians; we went deep into the archives and found his identity, we found his backstory, we pieced it together.”
Liberation Will Smith plays Peter and Antoine Fuqua directs. William N. Collage wrote the screenplay.
The producer, who described himself Wednesday night as a “filmmaker, writer, amateur historian and passionate curator of truth,” said he sees the film’s subject as a hero and a 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 these scars, these wounds; we need to have them on full display so we don’t make the same mistakes again,” McFarland continued. “We need to collect the stories, the photographs, the history before it is lost forever.” It’s part of my mission.”
McFarland has been involved in controversy before. He was embroiled in the 1MDB scandal, where billions were siphoned from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund by Malaysian businessman Jho Low.
Low used some of his embezzlement to comfort A-listers and Hollywood figures, including Paris Hilton and Leonardo DiCaprio. Through Hilton, he befriended McFarland, then working as her party booker, and helped finance his aspirations to become 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 with 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, but in 2019 the government seized tens of millions in accounts attributed to McFarland, which also returned millions worth of artwork Low gave him.
McFarland, who was never charged with a crime, received an Oscar nomination for The Wolf of Wall Streetand also produced starring Christian Bale Out of the oven and Dad’s home.
McFarland did not respond to a request for further comment.
—Alex Ritman contributed to this story.