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‘Only God can help a man endure’: Will Smith talks role as 'whipped Peter' in film 'Emancipation'

Will Smith
Will Smith promotes his new movie on "The Daily Show," Nov. 29, 2022. |

Months after the slap heard around the world, award-winning actor Will Smith is back in the public eye promoting his new film, "Emancipation," a role that prompted him to draw closer to God. 

Smith appeared on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” Monday to promote the film which will be released in theaters and Apple+ this weekend.  

In the film, Smith plays the role of a formerly enslaved man named Peter who made history after a photo of his wounded back showing the years of physical lashings circulated nationwide during the Civil War.

Peter escaped from slavery in Louisiana and volunteered for the Union Army. After seeing the Army medics he was photographed and the “keloidal whip marks” on his back are now ingrained in history. The image was published in Harper's Weekly in 1863 and captioned, “Whipped Peter.” 

“This film centers on faith,” Smith told Noah, adding that Peter seemed to have “the power of faith to be able to endure anything. This character ... what he had to endure and what he had to survive, only God could make a man, when you look at those marks on his back, only God could make that possible."

Smith said, according to what he was told, at one point in his life Peter was whipped so severely he went into a coma, and that's when he reportedly met God. After Peter came out of the coma, "he believed in a way that he had never believed before.”

“The difference between faith and revelation ... he walked in the world with a knowledge of the divine, a  knowledge of God that is just something that I’ve just desperately wanted to understand and explore," Smith said. 

Smith, who was once a highly celebrated actor in Hollywood, fell from grace earlier this year after he slapped comedian Chris Rock across the face during a live broadcast of the Oscars

The slap came after Rock made a joke about Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who suffers from alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes bald patches on the scalp.

At first, Smith laughed at the joke, but Jada was visibly uncomfortable with it. Soon after, Smith walked up to Rock on stage and slapped him and then continued shouting at the comedian when he returned to his seat. 

Noah asked Smith how he navigated “one of the best days of your life and one of the worst days of your life.”

Smith acknowledged that "I lost it," adding, "I guess what I would say is that you just never know what somebody’s going through … you just don’t know what’s going on with people."

"I was going through something that night, not that that justifies my behavior at all," he said. "We just got to be nice to each other, man. It’s hard. I guess the thing that was most painful for me is that I took my hard and made it hard for other people. I understood the idea when they say, ‘Hurt people hurt people.’”

Smith was moved to tears throughout the interview and revealed that he worries about how his actions might affect others, such as Antoine Fuqua, the director of “Emancipation.”

“The one thing that’s killing me is that 'Emancipation' is Antoine’s masterpiece,” Smith explained. “He has created an absolute masterpiece. Bob Richardson [the director of photography], [actor] Ben Foster, and just all the way down, these top artists in the world have done some of the best work of their career, and the idea that they might be denied because of me, that is killing me dead.”

With several other projects on the horizon, Smith told Noah that he's learning to “forgive myself for being human."

“I had to find the space for myself within myself to be human. I’ve always wanted to be Superman. I’ve always wanted to swoop in and save the damsel in distress," Smith said. "I had to humble down and realize that I’m a flawed human and I still have an opportunity to go out into the world and contribute in ways that fill my heart and hopefully help other people.”

Smith has talked openly about faith in God in recent years.

Last year, Smith spoke with preacher and author DeVon Franklin about how faith has influenced his life while discussing his film “King Richard,” which chronicles the faith-filled upbringing of Venus and Serena Williams.

“You can’t get where I get if you don’t love the Lord. You don’t get to sit how I sit, move how I move, if you don’t love the Lord. You’d be seeing a whole lot of other repercussions,” Smith said in the 2021 interview. 

The “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” star added that he connected with the Williams family's faith because of his grandmother, who attended Resurrection Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

Jeannie Ortega Law is a reporter for The Christian Post. Reach her at: jeannie.law@christianpost.com She's also the author of the book, What Is Happening to Me? How to Defeat Your Unseen Enemy Follow her on Twitter: @jlawcp Facebook: JeannieOMusic

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