Will Smith took the stage at the African American Film Critics Association Awards on Wednesday night to accept the Beacon Award for " Emancipation" alongside director Antoine Fuqua.
Smith's appearance came nearly one year after he slapped comedian Chris Rock onstage at the 2022 Academy Awards, which resulted in him resigning from the academy and being banned from attending the Oscars for 10 years.
"'Emancipation' was the individual most difficult film of my entire career. It was all outdoors, that is true," Smith joked, drawing laughs from the crowd as he looked over at Fuqua.
In the film, Smith plays Peter, a man who "escapes from slavery, relying on his wits, unwavering faith and deep love for his family to evade cold-blooded hunters and the unforgiving swamps of Louisiana on his quest for freedom" according to the movie's synopsis. The story is inspired by the 1863 photos of "Whipped Peter," which were taken during a Union Army medical examination and first appeared in "Harper's Weekly." The graphic images of the subject's heavily scarred back contributed to the growing public opposition to slavery at the time.
"It's really difficult to transport a modern mind to that time period. It's difficult to imagine ... that level of inhumanity," Smith said.
The "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" alum then recounted being spat on by a white co-star who "decided to ad-lib" during a scene on the second day of shooting," recalling, "So, we're doing the scene, and I did my line, and then 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," he said. "And I wanted to say, 'Antoine! Antoine!' But I stopped, and I realized that Peter couldn't have called the director. So I sat there and I took a deep breath, and we did take two."
Smith said "the actor felt that the ad-lib had gone well" and he repeated the spit during the second take.
"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," he explained. "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 Apple TV+, the movie's distributor, for its dedication to the film, saying officials "never flinched" at the budget.
"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," he said. "[Apple] make iPhones. They can do it."
Smith also won the NAACP Image Award for outstanding actor in a motion picture for "Emancipation" last weekend, but he was noticeably absent from the show.
He later reacted to the honor on Instagram, saying he was "absolutely humbled" for winning, adding, "I am so proud of the work we put into this film."