Scott D. Pierce: Is Will Smith sorry for the slap, or sorry that it hurt his image and his new Apple TV+ movie?

Before Smith slapped Chris Rock, Apple was hoping ‘Emancipation’ would be an Oscar contender.

(Apple) Director Antoine Fuqua and Will Smith behind the scenes of “Emancipation,” premiering December 9, 2022 on Apple TV+.

Is it possible to forget about scandal-tainted actors and just watch a movie or TV show they star in?

That’s more than an idle question for Apple TV+, which will start streaming “Emancipation” on Friday. Apple spent a fortune on the film and expected it to be a strong contender at the Oscars, but then Will Smith slapped Chris Rock and, in an instant, went from Hollywood good guy to Hollywood pariah.

Smith didn’t go on “The Daily Show” a few days ago because he felt the need to once again declare how sorry he is. He was there to try to salvage “Emancipation.”

The film, which started a limited theatrical release on Friday to make it eligible for the Academy Awards, is the fact-based story of a slave (Smith) who survived brutal beatings, escaped to the North, joined the Union army and fought against the Confederates in the Civil War. It seemed like a role almost certain to draw attention from Oscars voters, perhaps bringing Smith his second best-actor nomination in a row. Maybe even his second win in a row.

And then he slapped Rock.

That was months after filming on “Emancipation” had been completed. And it left Apple executives with what they hoped would be a prestige film that had suddenly turned into damaged goods. They pushed the release date back, and reportedly even considered pushing it into next year.

(Apple reportedly paid $130 million for the distribution rights. Smith was reportedly paid $35 million to star in the film.)

Who cares about the Oscars, you ask? Well, the studios certainly do. They spend millions on campaigns to get nominations and wins. And Apple was looking at “Emancipation” as its chance to get another best-picture nomination (after winning the big prize earlier this year with “CODA”).

How much did The Slap damage Smith’s image? I can tell you that I had thought favorably of him since interviewing him before the premiere of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” way back in 1990 — and that changed in an instant. I have since been told by a Hollywood insider that slapping Rock did not seem out of character to people who had worked with Smith.

No, it wasn’t a huge crime — although it was, arguably, a crime. But it left me with no desire to spend money to see Smith perform, the same way I stopped paying to see Woody Allen and Mel Gibson. I know they’re actors, but — for me — their offscreen behavior is impossible to overlook.

Is it wrong to take a moral stand of sorts about “Emancipation”? Absolutely not. Especially because Smith and the film’s director, Antoine Fuqua, took a moral stand about making the film. Production was shifted out of Georgia after that state enacted restrictive voting laws, and Smith and Fuqua released a statement declaring, “We cannot in good conscience provide economic support to a government that enacts regressive voting laws that are designed to restrict voter access.”

I applaud that decision. But that also means that anyone who cannot in good conscience support a Will Smith film is justified.

It’s hard not to have mixed feelings. Everyone behind “Emancipation” is probably going to suffer because of Smith. And Smith knows it. In a recent interview on a local TV station in Washington, D.C., Smith said, “Antoine has done what I think is the greatest work of 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.”

Is it too cynical to think that Smith’s primary concern is his career, not his “team”?

Trevor Noah the apologist

I’ve been a fan of Trevor Noah since before he took over “The Daily Show,” but his interview with Will Smith was not his finest hour.

First, he didn’t get any real answers. Smith said The Slap was the result of “rage that had been bottled for a really long time,” but Noah didn’t follow up on what that meant. When Smith said, “I was going through something that night,” Noah didn’t ask him what that was.

And, worse yet, Noah became an apologist for Smith. “Everybody can make a mistake,” he said. Which is certainly true. But not all of us can angrily stalk up to someone and strike him, and have a TV host dismiss it as a mistake.

And Noah’s suggestion that Smith was somehow justified because “people have said some sh---- things about you and your family” was both ridiculous and offensive.

Noah actually pleaded with viewers to forgive Smith. “I don’t want that to define you. I don’t think it should define you,” he said.

Noah has done some really great stuff since he took over as host of “The Daily Show” in 2015. I hope this interview with Smith doesn’t define him.

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