Will Smith says he “completely understands” if audiences aren’t ready to watch him on screen as he promotes his first film since he slapped Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars, but he hopes his actions won’t “penalise” the film, which is being released in the lead-up to awards season.
In a television interview with Fox 5, the actor acknowledged people’s mixed feelings about watching him act again, ahead of the release of the slavery drama Emancipation, directed by Antoine Fuqua, and Smith’s first major project since the ceremony.
“I completely understand that, if someone is not ready,” Smith told Fox 5. “I would absolutely respect that and allow them their space to not be ready.
“My deepest concern is my team. Antoine has done what I think is the greatest work in his entire career … the people on this team have done some of the best work of their entire careers, and my deepest hope is that my actions don’t penalize my team.
“So at this point, that’s what I’m working for. That’s what I’m hoping for. I’m hoping that the material, the power of the film, the timeliness of the story – I’m hoping that the good that can be done – will open people’s hearts at a minimum to see and recognise and support the incredible artists in and around this film.”
Emancipation tells the story of an escaped slave Gordon, also known as “Whipped Peter”, who was the subject of famous photographs documenting the scarring on his back from whippings he received. The shocking images were published around the world in 1863, fuelling the abolitionist movement.
The film’s release was delayed in May, partly due to concerns about the aftermath of Smith’s actions at the Academy Awards. It will be released in US theatres this week before it streams on Apple TV+ from 9 December.
Smith hit Rock on stage at the 2022 Academy Awards after the comedian made a joke about his wife’s baldness, in an attack that shocked millions watching around the world. Later that night Smith won the best actor Oscar for his role in King Richard.
In an interview with Vanity Fair in November, Fuqua said there had been no conversations “about the movie not coming out” but that Apple, which is releasing the film, had been “very careful”.
“My conversation was always, ‘Isn’t 400 years of slavery, of brutality, more important than one bad moment?’” he said. “We were in Hollywood, and there’s been some really ugly things that have taken place, and we’ve seen a lot of people get awards that have done some really nasty things.
“So I think Apple considered all those things and we discussed a lot of those things. Then a decision was made by the people in charge of distribution and the money at Apple – and I’m grateful. I’m really grateful.”
He called the slap “an unfortunate event, and I hope we can move forward and get past it”.