A year removed from the 2022 Oscars, Will Smith made his first return to the awards stage for the first time since then.
As THR reports, Smith appeared at the African American Film Critics Association to accept The Beacon Award alongside director Antoine Fuqua for the film Emancipation.
“The Beacon Award is intended to highlight films that are tackling challenging subjects with insight, enlightening, as well as engaging the audience,” he said. “It was our hope that Emancipation, that it would be able to bring Peter’s triumphant story and unwavering faith and his deep love for his family to life.”
Released in 2022, Emancipation stars Smith as Peter, known as “Whipped Peter,” a real-life enslaved person who escaped recapturing and joined the Union Army.
“Emancipation was the most individual difficult film of my entire career,” the actor began his part of the speech. “It’s really difficult to transport a modern mind to that time period. It’s difficult to imagine that, that level of inhumanity.”
For those unfamiliar, during the 2022 Oscars, Smith took to the stage and slapped comedian Chris Rock after the latter made a joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, which is a result of alopecia.
In the wake of the controversial moment, Smith issued an apology to both Rock and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, who banned the actor from attending the Oscars ceremony for a decade.
During his speech, Smith recounted a moment during the filming of Emancipation when a white co-star spontaneously spit on him.
“It was the second day of shooting and 110 degrees,” he said. “I was in a scene with one of the white actors, and we had our lines, and the actor decided to ad-lib. So, we’re doing the scene. I did my line. He did his line. And then he ad-libbed and spit in the middle of my chest. If I had pearls on, I definitely would’ve clutched them. I wanted to say, ‘Antoineeeeee,’ but I stopped, and I realized that Peter couldn’t have called the director.”
Smith revealed that the moment heightened his understanding what the enslaved went through.
“I sat there, and I took a deep breath, and we did take two, and the actor felt that the ad-lib had gone well. So, we do take two. I do my line. He does his line and spits in the middle of my chest again,” Smith continued. “I just held in that moment, and there was a part — it makes me teary right now — there was a part of me that was grateful that I got to really understand. And then, in the distance, I hear a voice, and Antoine says, ‘Hey, let’s do a take without the spit.’ And in that moment, I knew that God was real.”