Will Smith Says He Must Forgive Himself for Chris Rock Oscar Slap

Smith did not apologize, exactly, but came to Trevor Noah for image work and to field grounders

Will Smith’s been laying low since he blitzed the stage at the Oscars in March to slap host Chris Rock across the face after a harmless jape about his wife—then resigning from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and releasing a bizarre apology video online, but never quite offering up anything like a satisfactory mea culpa. Well, Smith finally emerged from his post-attack exile on Monday for a little image reconstruction from his pal Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.

Smith was ostensibly there to promote his upcoming film, Antione Fuqua’s Emancipation— but despite what appears to be a uniquely compelling movie, under the circumstances, who cares? The reason to tune in was to see if the former nice guy—and possibly former movie star—could find a friendly and savvy enough host to give him the rehab of a lifetime.

Noah began the 21-minute interview with nine minutes of typical celebrity project-plugging palaver. Smith, for his part, was the charming movie star we thought we knew, before the handsy monster of Oscar night took over. He had just flown 30 hours from Bhutan to sit in Trevor’s chair, where he’d been filming a NatGeo show, Pole to Pole—and how’s that for a charming and memorable anecdote?

Next, Noah segued into Smith’s prestige project, Emancipation, an historical film in which Smith plays a character based on a man remembered to history only as Gordon, or “Whipped Peter“—an escaped slave whose back was so horribly scourged by lashings that his photograph made the brutality of American slavery impossible to deny when it went around the world in 1863. The film takes place in the long, long space between Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 and June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to free the last remaining slaves there—the date now celebrated at Juneteenth.

Will Smith plays an escaped slave known only as Gordon, or “Whipped Peter,” but whose image helped wake up the world.

But enough is enough, a viewer would rightfully be thinking by the time Noah said, “You know, it’s been a while since I last saw you; it’s been a while since many people have seen you.”

“Yeah, I’ve been away,” Smith replied, to audience laughter. “What y’all been doing?”

Smith then joked, “I have no independent recollection of…” before Noah cut him off, saying, “I can only imagine what it’s been like for you, because it’s been weird for many of us. What has the journey been like since that day?”

“That was a horrific night, as you can imagine,” Smith said. “There’s many nuances and complexities to it, as you know. But at the end of the day, I just lost it.”

Perhaps not quite the picture of contrition we’ve all been waiting for, but not bad.

“I guess what I would say, is that you just never know what somebody’s going through,” Smith offered. “You know, in the audience right now, you’re sitting next to strangers. And somebody’s mother died last week, you know. Somebody’s child is sick. Somebody just lost their job. Somebody just found out their spouse cheated… You just don’t know what’s going on with people.”

Yes, Smith did use “spouse cheated” as a hypothetical, but we’ll just leave that where it lay for now.

“And I was going through something that night,” he continued. “Not that that justifies my behavior at all. I would just say… we just got to be nice to each other, man. It’s like, it’s hard. I understood the idea where they say, ‘Hurt people hurt people.'”

Noah was happy to not hold Smith’s feet to the fire. For example, he didn’t directly ask whether he had spoken to Rock.

“For me it was like you stood up for the wrong thing at the wrong time in a way,” he helpfully explained to Smith. Later, after decrying the mean Internet comments that apparently were such a huge bummer for Smith and his all-star family, Noah said, “It felt like [The Slap] was Will Smith going for the first time, ‘Okay, is this how you want me to respond or not?'”

If true, Noah is possibly the only person who feels that way.

“It was a lot of things,” Smith said of his brutal and cowardly assault on a tiny jester who would never fight back. “It was the little boy who watched his father beat up his mother.” He paused. “That’s not who I want to be.”

Well, don’t look now, Will.

“I also think it’s not who you are,” Noah lobbed at the the 54 year-old father of three, then further gushing, “I also speak for people when I say, I don’t want that to define you. I don’t think that should define you.”

“That was one of the big things over the last couple months, you know,” Smith said. “That I had to forgive myself for being human.”

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