In his first speech this awards season, Will Smith reflected on the difficult journey of bringing Emancipation to the screen.
The actor-producer and Emancipation director Antoine Fuqua received the Beacon Award Wednesday night in Beverly Hills at the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) Awards.
After Fuqua spoke briefly, Smith discussed the grueling process of making Emancipation. The Oscar-winning actor noted that filming the historical drama — about a runaway slave who goes to extraordinary lengths in his quest for freedom — was physically and mentally draining.
“Emancipation was the individual most difficult film of my entire career,” Smith told the audience. “It was all outdoors, that is true.”
His comment about shooting outside came in response to a joke from the night’s host, comedian Roy Wood Jr., who quipped that the period drama was shot outside, in blazing Southern heat — with alligators and vicious dogs dotting the landscape.
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Smith portrayed a slaved named Peter who escaped to freedom by relying on his wits, unwavering faith and deep love for his family to evade cold-blooded hunters and the unforgiving swamps of Louisiana.
“It’s really difficult to transport a modern mind to that time period. It’s difficult to imagine that level of inhumanity,” he said.
Smith told the audience it was humbling to even attempt to recreate some of the traumas Peter endured, including being whipped and torn from his family.
He shared an experience from the set about a white actor who decided to go off script by spitting on him.
“He did his line. And then, ad-lib, he spit in the middle of my chest,” Smith said. The actor admitted he was caught off guard, but quickly realized a slaved would have had no recourse.
“There was a part of me that was grateful that I got to really understand,” he explained.
Smith then praised the writers, producers, directors, and actors in the audience for telling stories about the Black experience.
“In this room are people who really suffer for the art to bring these stories… to tell our stories and hopefully that has the impact to change a heart or to change a mind,” an emotional Smith said.
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He expressed gratitude to AAFCA President Gil Robertson, who presented him with the award alongside Emancipation actress Charmaine Bingwa. Smith ended by praising Apple TV+ for continuing to support the film even as the production went over budget.
“It was the first time I had heard from a studio that the story was more important than how much it cost to get it done,” Smith said. Although he jokingly noted that Apple has very deep pockets because “they make iPhones.”
Smith has kept a relatively low profile since the incident at last year’s Oscars with Chris Rock. The minute he arrived at Wednesday’s awards, he was swarmed by photographers who the announcer pleaded with to take their seats.
Among the night’s other winners and honorees were The Woman King director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Black Panther: Wakanda Forever actress Angela Bassett; Till stars Danielle Deadwyler and Jalyn Hall; and Nanny writer-director Nikyatu Jusu.