Will Smith Returns to Awards Stage in Person for First Time After Oscars Slap to Accept AAFCA Honor

"Emancipation was the individual most difficult film of my entire career," Smith said in his Wednesday remarks while accepting the AAFCA's Beacon award

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 30: Will Smith attends Apple Original Films' "Emancipation" Los Angeles premiere at Regency Village Theatre on November 30, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
Will Smith. Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty

Will Smith has made his return to the awards-show stage.

In his first in-person awards-show speech nearly a year after slapping Chris Rock in the face at the 2022 Academy Awards, the 54-year-old actor acknowledged his fellow Emancipation cast and crew for their efforts in making the film, which won a special honor at the African-American Film Critics Association Awards on Wednesday night.

"Emancipation was the individual most difficult film of my entire career. It was all outdoors, that is true," Smith joked to the audience, per Variety, as he accepted the Beacon award along with the movie's director, Antoine Fuqua.

"It was the second day of shooting and 110 degrees … I was in a scene with one of the white actors," he continued. "The actor decided to ad lib. So we're doing the scene. I did my line. He did his line. And then — ad lib — he spit in the middle of my chest."

As the audience let out a groan, Variety reports, Smith added, "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… 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."

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Will Smith Emancipation trailer
Will Smith in Emancipation (2022). Apple TV+

He went on, "I want to thank [AAFCA co-founder Gil L. Robertson IV] and AAFCA. I want to thank all of you in this room for doing what you do, keeping our stories alive. I want to thank Apple, because the budget was one thing. 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 … They make iPhones. They can do it," he concluded, per Variety.

While Smith is savoring the recognition the historical drama has received, he revealed in November that he had lost sleep over how his altercation with Rock, 58, at the Oscars last March would affect the impact of the film.

In an November 2022 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Smith, who won Best Actor last year shortly after the incident with Rock, said that the "only discomfort my heart has around" continued fallout from the slap "is that so many people have done spectacular work on" the new film.

RELATED VIDEO: Tiffany Haddish Attends Emancipation Premiere After Supporting Will Smith Post–Oscars Slap

"I definitely lose a couple winks of sleep every night thinking that I could have potentially penalized my team," the actor said. "But I'm going to do everything I can to make sure everyone gets seen in the light that they deserve."

Speaking about Emancipation, Smith told the outlet that the movie's screenplay from writer Bill Collage "was one of the greatest reads I've ever had as an actor."

"I knew I wanted to make it by the time I was on page 20," the actor said of the film, which is inspired by "the 1863 photos of 'Whipped Peter,' taken during a Union Army medical examination, that first appeared in Harper's Weekly."

In Emancipation, Smith stars as Peter, a man whose escape from slavery forces him to rely "on his wits, unwavering faith and deep love for his family" as he runs from slave hunters and through Louisiana on his journey toward freedom.

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