The win came after a shocking moment in which Smith smacked Chris Rock after the comedian made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith. He addressed the moment, which went viral immediately, in his speech.
“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said. “In this time of my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world. Making this film, I got to protect Aunjanue Ellis, who is one of the most strongest, most delicate people I’ve ever met. I got to protect Saniyya and Demi, the two actresses who played Venus and Serena. I’m being called on in my life to love people, and to protect people, and to be a river to my people. And I know that to do what we do you gotta be able to take abuse and you gotta be able to have people talk crazy about you in this business. You gotta be able to have people disrespecting you and you gotta smile and act like that’s okay. Denzel said to me a few moments ago, ‘That’s your highest moment. Be careful, that’s when the Devil comes for you.’ It’s like, I wanna be a vessel for love. I wanna say thank you to Venus and Serena, for entrusting me with your story. I want to apologize to the academy. I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees.
Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things. To my mother, this moment is really complicated for me, but to my mother, she didn’t want to come out, she has a knitting crew she’s in in Philly watching this with. I’m taking too much time. Thank you for this honor, thank you for this moment. And I hope the Academy invites me back. Thank you.”
“King Richard” sees Smith playing Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams who went to great lengths to push his daughters to pursue their tennis greatness. Despite living in the impoverished neighborhood of Compton and having no professional tennis experience himself, Williams used his creativity and resilient work ethic to help his daughters realize their potential, famously writing a 78-page plan for their tennis careers when they were only toddlers. Smith has earned rave reviews for his ability to portray the larger-than-life figure in a studio biopic while still adding enough nuance to humanize the character.
Richard Williams was not involved in the film in any capacity, which freed Smith and the creative team to portray him in an honest way without worrying about his approval. Venus and Serena Williams granted their life rights to the film, and once they saw the finished product, they became prominent public supporters of the movie.
Smith has made no secret of his admiration for the Williams family, and has been involved in the project as both a star and producer since its inception. Throughout his awards season push, he was frequently seen with Venus and Serena Williams and always made a point to praise the family in his acceptance speeches.
“Richard Williams is a dreamer like no one you’ve ever known,” Smith said as he accepted the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor. “He has a power of belief that borders on insanity and sometimes tips over the border, which is absolutely necessary to take something from impossible to possible.
“Venus, Serena, the Williams family, you entrusted me and our group with your story. You didn’t agree to put your name on it until you saw the final project. I get that, I get that. That’s cool. That’s real, because we be messing stuff up sometimes,” he said. “But when I got the call and you watched the movie and you said you loved it, I just want to say thank you very much…It was my deepest pleasure to honor your family and to tell your story to the world. Thank you all.”
Despite Smith being involved as a producer on the film, director Reinaldo Marcus Green said that when it was time to start shooting, Smith focused on being an actor and was very receptive to feedback. “He comes from an era where you respect the director,” Green said. “If something didn’t feel right, he’d speak up, and he did many times. But he was also very receptive to letting me take the reins.”
Early in the Oscar race, it looked like the momentum was with Benedict Cumberbatch for his transformative performance in “The Power of the Dog.” But as awards season went on, Smith charmed Oscar voters on the campaign trail with his genuine enthusiasm for the material, and a lengthy awards season push featuring the Williams sisters themselves helped make the film a serious contender. That, combined with the fact that Smith was overdue after decades of Hollywood stardom, was enough to push the “King Richard” star to Oscar gold.
Once the major award shows started, Smith quickly dominated his category, winning at the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the BAFTAs. The trifecta of wins at shows that often predict Oscar winners was enough to cement his frontrunner status, which he was able to maintain through Oscar night. Smith, who was also nominated as a producer on “King Richard,” was previously nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role for 2003’s “Ali” and 2007’s “The Pursuit of Happyness. This marks his first win in any category.
In addition to Cumberbatch, Smith faced stiff competition from the likes of Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”), Javier Bardem (“Being the Ricardos”), and Andrew Garfield (“Tick Tick Boom”). Smith is the fifth Black man to take home the trophy for Best Actor in a Leading Role, joining Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, and Forest Whitaker in the exclusive club. He is also the second Black actor to be nominated for acting and producing in the same year, following Denzel Washington in 2012 for “Fences.”
Smith plans to follow his Oscar win by keeping very busy. He will next be seen in Antoine Fuqua’s runaway slave thriller “Emancipation,” and recently announced plans to reprise one of his most iconic roles in an “I Am Legend” sequel.