Kemba” director Kelley Kali. (Rasa Partin)

“Kemba” is a powerful film that’s currently streaming on BET+. Directed by Kelley Kali, the movie tells the true story of Kemba Smith, who, while in college, fell in love with a man, who unbeknownst to her, was also a drug kingpin. Witnessing her boyfriend, Khalif, go from a loving to a vicious temperament, hindered her ability to leave when the relationship became abusive. Smith soon found herself indicted on drug charges despite never handling, using, or selling drugs. At 23-years-old, while seven months pregnant, she was sentenced to twenty-four years in prison under the “mandatory sentencing” guidelines despite being a first-time offender, with no prior criminal history.

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Smith’s story was amplified by the Black media, specifically journalist Reginald Suart, who in 1996, wrote an in-depth piece about her life for Emerge Magazine. Before going “viral” was a buzzword, Smith’s story captivated the nation and caught the attention of Elaine Jones, the first female president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. What ensued was a nearly decade-long fight for justice that concluded with Smith being granted clemency by President Bill Clinton in 2000 after serving 6.5 years in prison. Following her release, Smith earned her Bachelor’s degree in social work from Virgina Union University. She’s been invited to speak at the White House as well as testify before Congress and the United Nations, where she lobbied to reform various criminal justice issues.

When asked what was the catalyst behind the film, Smith shared that a plethora of filmmakers wanted to tell her story over the last two decades including the late John Singleton and Will Packer. However, it was the MPI Original Films and their relationship with BET that received the coveted opportunity to bring Smith’s story to the big screen.

“Kemba” cast and crew attend the Pan African Film Festival. From left are Afolabi Oyeneyin, Ashley Denise Robinson, Elvire Emanuelle, Kemba Smith Pradia, Kelley Kali, and June Carroll. (Kelley Kali)

“So much was invested in me and my case, I knew that once those prison doors opened, I couldn’t just shut the door and go live my life,” Smith told the Sentinel. The feature film had always been a part of Smith’s larger vision. Even while incarcerated, she knew she wanted to use her experience to incite change.

Award-winning director and Howard University/USC alumna Kelley Kali resonated with Smith’s story after realizing she had a friend, who was in a nearly identical situation, serving time in federal prison for unknowingly accepting packages of drugs for someone she trusted.

“We have to continue to bring more awareness to help change these laws because this is still happening even years after Kemba’s case,” said Kali. “[The judicial system] is squeezing people into this blanketed book of rules when we really need to take into account the individual and consider their circumstances,” she added.

“Kemba” actors Sean Patrick Thomas, Nesta Cooper, Director Kelley Kali, actress Michelle Hurd, with Gus Smith, Kemba Smith Pradia, Phoenix Pradia and Odessa Smith. (Courtesy photo)

Oftentimes, the onus is put on women to “make better decisions” by not falling for a “bad boy”. However, Smith hopes that by seeing the film, more men are moved to take accountability for the ways in which their actions impact their partners.  “I remember speaking at a juvenile facility, a young man came up to me and apologized. He said that he was ‘Khalif’ and that hearing my story helped him see how he was impacting women and he wanted to live his life differently,” shared Smith.

In regards to what she hopes male viewers glean from the film, Kali told the Sentinel, “I’m hoping that men can see the harm that’s caused to women when they manipulate and mislead someone just to have them. I also hope that the men who aren’t doing those things will raise their sons to protect and support Black women because there’s data that shows Black women are always at the forefront of protecting others but no one is looking out for us.”

“Kemba” is more than just a cautionary tale, it’s a call to action to reform our criminal justice system. There are actionable steps that viewers can take after watching the movie. “Contact your congressional representatives to ensure that they redress these mandatory sentencing laws,” said Kali. “I know it seems like such a big mountain to climb, but every bit of awareness helps to try to make these laws take into consideration the individual and not just blanket everybody into one group,” she said. “If we just sit on our hands, nothing’s going to change. We can’t pretend that none of us can be affected, just look at what happened to Kemba, who was the ‘poster child’ who had no prior involvement with crime.”

Kemba Smith Pradia, prison reform activist, executive producer, author, and motivational speaker. (Courtesy photo)

Echoing similar sentiments, Smith hopes that audiences leave “Kemba” with more empathy in tow, “We shouldn’t just generalize everyone that goes through the system, I hope my film helps people to see others with more humanity,” she said. “I also hope people can see the mitigated circumstances that the judge should have considered in not sentencing me to longer than I had been living on this earth; twenty-four years, when I was 23-years-old at the time.”

As an executive producer of the film, it was imperative for Smith to ensure that her story also shone a light on women like Michelle West, who has also been subjected to an unjust sentence. Smith was incarcerated, with West, who despite being a first-time, non-violent offender was sentenced to life in prison for similar drug-related charges.

“It’s still hard for me to digest the fact that I’ve been out of prison for 23 years, and she’s been in for over 30 years. We urge President Biden to commute her sentence.” Smith also notes that in addition to the President, governors can also grant clemency. “They hold this act of mercy. I hope that this movie will result in more officials granting commutations and clemencies for people who deserve them, and also put an end to mandatory minimum sentencing because judges should be able to consider people’s individual circumstances and not subject everyone to the same sentence across the board.”

To learn more about Smith’s advocacy work and to read her book, “Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story,” which delves deeper into her upbringing, prison sentence, and reentry into society following release, visit: and “Kemba” is currently streaming exclusively on BET+.