Will Smith returned to the awards season circuit on Wednesday to accept the Beacon Award at the African American Film Critics Association Awards.
The speech marked the Oscar winner’s first in-person acceptance at an award show since he slapped Chris Rock onstage at the 2022 Academy Awards.
He accepted the award alongside his Emancipation director, Antoine Fuqua, who began the acceptance speech by explaining the significance of the award.
“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.” The director went on to thank Apple, AAFCA and the film’s cast and crew before handing over the mic to Smith.
“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.”
He went on to recount his experience filming the AppleTV+ movie, in which he plays Peter, an enslaved man who manifests his own freedom. Smith then recalled being spontaneously spat on by a white co-star while filming a tense scene, and how that impacted his understanding of the injustice of the slavery era.
“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.”
Will Smith continued, “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. 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.”
Smith also thanked the AAFCA and everyone in the room for everything that they do. He then took a moment to direct his appreciation toward Apple.
“I want to thank Apple because the budget was one thing,” he said. “And then the budget was another thing. And then the budget was another thing. And Apple never flinched. It was the first time I had heard from a studio that the story was more important than how much it costs to get it done, so then we added some more stuff that we wanted. They make iPhones. They can do it.”
Prior to taking the stage, Smith was flocked by cameras marking his first public appearance this awards season. He was noticeably absent at the NAACP Image Awards, where he won the best actor award for his portrayal of Peter.
He later posted a thank you on his Instagram, in which he praised the organization for “the work you do all year round” and shared how much it meant to him to be recognized by it in that way.
In November, the film premiered in Westwood and was momentarily caught in the crossfire of controversy, when a producer posed with the original “Scourged Back” photograph which inspired the screenplay.