1 of 5 | Will Smith attends the premiere of "Emancipation" in Los Angeles on November 30, 2022. The actor just made his first public acceptance speech since the Oscars last year. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo
March 2 (UPI) -- In his first public speech since he won an Oscar last year for King Richard and the fallout after he slapped Chris Rock onstage, Will Smith referenced the difficulty of his work in the film Emancipation.
The film was awarded the Beacon Award for Emancipation at the 14th African American Film Critic's Association on Wednesday.
The Apple+ movie, directed by Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer, Training Day) is a fictionalized version of the life of a man known as 'Whipped Peter.' He is a slave who escaped a Louisiana plantation to join the Union Army in 1863.
His whip-scarred back was photographed by Army doctors.
The picture was published in Harper's that same year and helped show the horrors of slavery to the nation. Despite the film, neither Peter's eventual fate nor his last name is known.
"Emancipation was the most individual difficult film of my entire career," Smith said. "It's really difficult to transport a modern mind to that time period. It's difficult to imagine that, that level of inhumanity. He added, "It was the second day of shooting and 110 degrees. 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."
AAFCA's Gil L. Robertson, who presented the award to Smith and Fuqua with Emancipation actress Charmaine Bingwa, said conversations about Smith attending the event started at the media junket for Emancipation. The veteran journalist is co-founder and CEO of the association, the largest collective of Black film critics in the country now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Chazz Ebert of RogerEbert.com and ESPN's Kelley Carter are both members.
"We've known each other for years and I was like 'You need to come to the show and let us see you and feel the love,'" Robertson told UPI he said to Smith. "'You might have to sit in the back of the room because you have a penalty, but you'll still feel the love,' so we laughed about that."
Once the AAFCA determined it would honor Emancipation with its Beacon Award, Smith agreed to accept it if director Fuqua could be there as well.
"The Beacon Award is given out to a film that serves as an example for other movies to follow," Robertson said. "AAFCA is of the opinion that those stories are critically important and that people need to be constantly reminded of that part of our lineage, so the Beacon Award shines a light on them."
He added, "There are a lot of features around Black trauma and slave stories, but the film does show a different side of what that experience was like and that's how we decided that we were going to give the film the award."
Smith appeared alone at the awards and Robertson said that despite the other stars in the room including Angela Bassett, Viola Davis and Ryan Coogler, Smith's appearance generated a positive response.
"We knew he was in the hotel and coming down but when he came into the room there was a buzz of excitement," Robertson said. "When Will comes in, it just flips it. He came and he conquered and he went," he says, emphasizing that the actor stayed at the ceremony until his category was announced.
As for a way forward for the actor after the infamous slap, Roberts says that he sees a path to redemption.
"I hope so. He's already had a spectacular career," he said. "I think he's attained a level of success and wealth that I'm sure he could take it and leave it at the end of the day. [But] he's made a lot of people a lot of money in this industry. I think people should forgive and it's on them whether or not whether they should forget."
He added, "I think he will have the career he wants to have."
The AAFCA also handed out awards to films including The Woman King, The Inspection, The Nanny and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.