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A new movie tells the story of Kemba Smith Pradia, race and incarceration

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The movie "Kemba" starts in the year 1990 at a party at Hampton University, a historically Black college in Virginia. Kemba Niambi Smith is dragged out of the bathroom by her roommate who wants her to relax and have a good time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KEMBA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) See? See? This party going to change your life.

RASCOE: And it does change her life - the only child to a middle-class couple, Kemba falls in love with a young man she meets at that party. He turns out to be abusive...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KEMBA")

SIDDIQ SAUNDERSON: (As Khalif) Come here, don't - come here. Is that what you want?

RASCOE: ...And a crack cocaine dealer. The feds come after them. She gets prosecuted on conspiracy charges, even though she never handled any drugs herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KEMBA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It is the judgment of the court that the defendant is to be committed hereby to the custody of the United States Bureau of Prisons to be in prison for a term of 294 months.

RASCOE: That's 24 1/2 years. The NAACP Defense Fund takes up her case. It turns into a national campaign, and Kemba is finally freed by then-President Bill Clinton. The movie, now streaming on BET+, is based on the life of Kemba Smith, now Kemba Smith Pradia. She's the author of an autobiography, "Poster Child," and an advocate for reforming mandatory minimum sentences.

KEMBA SMITH PRADIA: When I turned myself in, seven months pregnant, I prayed and ask God to allow me to be a voice to prevent other people from going down the same path. So it's just been really important for me to continue to be a human face for those that I left behind in prison because I had a sense of survivor's guilt once I walked out of those prison doors.

RASCOE: Kelley Kali is the film's director.

KELLEY KALI: And the first time I read Kemba's story that - when it came my way to consider directing it, one, we both went to historically Black colleges and universities. I went to Howard University, and she went to Hampton, and, you know, that's, like, our sister school. So that already got my attention. But I mean, what better collaboration than to have a Howard grad and a Hampton grad working together to tell this story to be aware of what these laws are and who you associate with. And that applies to my best friend. We both were in the church. My dad was a pastor. Her mother was a missionary, and one of our deacons had asked her to accept some packages for him over the summer, and she accepted these packages until one day, the feds kicked in her door and took her down and she realized that inside of these packages were kilos of cocaine. I ended up going to college, and she ended up going to federal prison.

RASCOE: How many of these women are still behind bars under similar circumstances as Kemba's? Are there a lot of them? I think a lot of people don't know.

SMITH PRADIA: Statistically, since the '80s, women's incarceration has grown over 700% faster than any other population in the country, and women and in particular, women of color are disproportionately incarcerated through the harsh drug law enforcement and sentencing. Now, let me be clear. I am one that has this experience, but I also do take responsibility for some of the choices that I made along with educating people about policies and how easy it is to get caught up and to help reform policy, I'm also hoping to prevent young people from going down the same path.

RASCOE: Talk to me about how you speak to people who may be hearing your story about personal responsibility versus systemic issues.

SMITH PRADIA: Well, hindsight 20/20 as a grown 52-year-old woman and that younger Kemba was naive and didn't fully understand loving herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KEMBA")

NESTA COOPER: (As Kemba) I know why you chose me.

SAUNDERSON: (As Khalif) What?

COOPER: (As Kemba) You could have had any girl, but you chose me. It's because I'm here. I stayed, but you always knew I would.

SMITH PRADIA: And so one of the things that I talk to young people about, in particular, young women, is ensuring that they have that self-worth and confidence in themselves that will allow them to make healthier choices. And so I'd own up and I'm responsible for the fact that I did get into this relationship with a drug dealer. My crime wasn't that I was criminally minded. My crime was that I chose the wrong relationship while I was in college and got deep in it and didn't know how to get out of it.

RASCOE: The movie makes clear that part of Kemba's appeal to activists and journalists was that she came from such a clean cut background. She had educated parents, a former debutant. What do you think it says about the way the American public viewed the drug war at that time, that it took having someone from that sort of background to get the sympathy to start some of this movement?

KALI: Yeah, I mean, we know what it is. These laws are targeting the Black and brown communities. But there are so many Kembas that are in these prison systems, but they do not have her parents. The truth of the matter is the variable that set her apart is not only that she came from a middle class family and that she came from the suburbs. It's she had relentless parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KEMBA")

SEAN PATRICK THOMAS: (As Gus) Hey, Kim, got a little bit of good news. I'm meeting with the new lawyer tonight about your appeal. Get some fresh eyes on the situation.

COOPER: (As Kemba) Thank you, Dad. You've done so much already.

KALI: Gus and Odessa were not going to give up until their daughter was home. And see, not everyone has family like that. Gus and Odessa are the ones who really, really, really pushed to get these organizations involved, them as a unit.

SMITH PRADIA: Thank you, Kelley, and my parents are my heroes. Along with my parents, I would have to say also the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to have such a historic organization that decided that they were going to take on my case pro bono.

RASCOE: I guess, what ultimately do you want people who sit down and watch this movie, Kemba - what do you want them to take from it?

SMITH PRADIA: I just want people to get involved. I want communities to host screenings, have panel discussions. We didn't have a huge marketing budget to promote the film, but I do feel like the film can change live, save lives, and impact policy.

KALI: I cosign with everything Kemba just said, but we have to be very intentional with our art and the stories that we choose to tell, and it truly doesn't matter, whether it's a biopic or any type of genre. That type of work that we are doing as artists - it matters.

RASCOE: That's Kelley Kali, who is director of the movie "Kemba," and Kemba Smith Pradia, the woman on whose life the movie is based, now streaming on BET+. Thank you both for coming on.

SMITH PRADIA: Thank you so much.

KALI: Thank you so much for having us. We really enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.