Will Smith’s new movie, Emancipation, comes out in theaters this weekend, before debuting on Apple TV+ on December 9. Smith is, in a limited way, doing press for the movie. Earlier this week, he stopped by The Daily Show for a long conversation with Trevor Noah, one of his real-life friends. It’s obviously a soft landing for Smith after the drama of the past year, doing a talk show with a guy in his corner, but also Noah is known for doing substantive interviews, for being prepared, for being able to talk to cagey people about tough subjects. His affection and support for Smith shine in this interview, though he does point out “you f-cked up” when talking about The Slap. But Noah doesn’t dwell on the negative, he spends most of the interview either talking to Smith about Emancipation, or letting Smith attempt to tell his side of The Slap story.


I say “attempt” because it seems like Smith is still a little flummoxed by the whole thing. I don’t think he will ever sit down and say, “This is exactly what I was thinking and feeling in that moment,” and I don’t really think he owes us, the faceless public, that much explanation. But I honestly am not sure he could articulate it anyway, because it kind of seems like Smith is still a bit shocked at himself. He is clearly emotional throughout the interview, especially when Noah or the audience expresses support for him, and he struggles at times to find the right words to, if not explain himself, at least define that moment cogently. I’m not sure Smith has ever been more relatable than when he is visibly struggling to explain a singular instance of behavior that was so far outside his norm, at least up to that point. Sometimes we do things it takes us forever to explain to ourselves, the “why did I think/say/do that” moments that keep us up at night. Most of us never have to air that internal struggle publicly, but Will Smith’s moment just happened to occur during the goddamn Oscars.


When I last wrote about Smith, I said, That was one aberration in a lifetime of being Not That Guy, he deserves a chance to rebuild and reclaim his professional reputation.” That is the entire purpose of this Daily Show interview. Sure, he’s promoting Emancipation. But he’s really promoting “Will Smith”, the beloved Movie Star who took a backseat to The Slap this year. The audience is audibly with him, applauding and making affirmative noises throughout the interview, especially when Smith talks about leaning on his faith (Xenu is no more…?). In all, it’s an effective public appearance. He makes a good case for Emancipation, calling it a “freedom movie”, not a “slave movie”, and hoping his own mess doesn’t begrudge Antoine Fuqua and everyone else who worked on the film their moment. But he makes the best case for himself, reminding us of how charming he is, how much we like(d) him, and firmly painting The Slap as an anomaly. Some people will undoubtedly write off Smith for the rest of ever because of The Slap, but Trevor Noah probably has it right. Will Smith not being perfect will only endear him to people, in the end.


For Canadian readers, here is the clip: