Smith took the stage smiling — acknowledging the timeliness of the situation — before kicking off his speech. “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” he said. “In this time in 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, one of the strongest, most delicate people I’ve ever met. I got to protect Saniyya [Sidney] and Demi [Singleton], the two actresses that 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. I know to do what we do you gotta be able to take abuse, have people talk crazy about you. In this business you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you and you gotta smile and pretend like that’s OK.
“Denzel said to me a few minutes ago,” Smith added, crying. “He said, ‘At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.’ I wanna be a vessel for love. I wanna say thank you to Venus and Serena and the entire Williams family for entrusting me with your story. That’s what I wanna do, I wanna be an ambassador of that kind of love and care and concern. I want to apologize to the Academy, I wanna apologize to all my fellow nominees. This is a beautiful moment.”
After apologizing to everyone but Rock, Smith appeared to continue to acknowledge the incident in his speech. “Art imitates life; I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams,” he said. “Love will make you do crazy things. To my mother, a lot of this moment is really complicated for me, but to my mother — she didn’t want to come out, she has a knitting crew in Philly she’s watching with. Thank you for this honor, thank you for this moment. I hope the Academy invites me back.”
According to those in the audience, Smith’s publicist was speaking to him at every commercial break. Amy Schumer, co-hosting the evening with Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall, acknowledged the fight when she returned onstage. “Did I miss something?” she asked. “There’s a different vibe in here.”