Kemba Smith Pradia, Kelley Kali Discuss The Impact of BET+’s ‘Kemba’

In an exclusive interview, Kemba and director Kelley Kali share insights into the making of the film, its impact, and the ongoing mission to secure clemency for others, like Michelle West, ensnared by unjust sentencing laws.

Kemba Smith Pradia was a college student on her own for the first time when she fell in love with the wrong man. The man ended up being a drug trafficker and abusive to Smith Pradia and dragged her down a dark road that involved an entanglement with the US prison system. In 1994, she was sentenced to 24.5 years in federal prison on drug trafficking charges despite not directly participating in the activity. Her case drew national attention and support from organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and after serving 6.5 years, President Bill Clinton granted her clemency in 2000.

Since then, Kemba has become an author, public speaker, and advocate for criminal justice reform. Her story has been told through documentaries, public speaking, news stories, and more, but for the first time, there’s a dramatization of her life’s story titled "Kemba," airing on BET+. We spoke with Kemba Smith Pradia and director Kelley Kali to discuss bringing the movie to life, the mission to free Michelle West, and more.

BET:  Kemba, your story is legendary in certain circles, especially at Hampton University. I remember being taught about you in a University 101 class when I went there. Then, through the years, I've seen you speak, I've seen articles about you and there are documentaries, but this is the first time we're seeing a dramatization. So, talk about what it feels like to be on this side, all these years later, and what went into seeing this film to fruition. 

Kemba Smith Pradia: It feels empowering because I just feel like I've let God use me, and when I turned myself in seven months pregnant, I wanted to let my story be a cautionary tale for people so they wouldn't have to go down the same path. So, to be where we are today, it's surreal to be at this point, because I can remember praying and getting on my knees, asking God to use me and basically, to be 20-some years later and to have this movie happen. I have my book, and like you mentioned, I have been out here telling this story for years, but to have this platform and NPR producing it, and Kelley, the director, and for the story to be told so beautifully, I'm just really excited. If you've seen the movie, you know I'm expecting Michelle West to come home. I'm expecting college students to make healthier decisions regarding relationships, self-love, and focusing on their goals. For me, it's just a woosah moment. It's just breathing and reflecting on all of what I've known in my heart that I wanted the story to do, and for it to be elevated on this platform. I'm just grateful and humbled. 

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BET: And Kelley, I'm curious, I saw you went to Howard. I'm not going to be shady today [laughs], but was this a story that you heard while in school? 

Kelley: Don’t be shady, girl. Kemba and I were on set doing our little jabs [laughs]. 

Kemba: It’s okay, Starr, she might ease it in [laughs]. 

Kelley: We’ve been having fun with that. 

BET: But I’m curious if this is a story that came onto your radar when you were in college. If not, how did it get on your radar, and how did you come on board the project? 

Kelley: I didn’t hear the story when I was at Howard. I remember seeing it on the news and images with people wearing “Free Kemba” t-shirts but I feel like we should have had that class too. I love that there was faculty at Hampton that took it upon themselves to create courses to ensure this did not happen to other young ladies and educate the young men just the same. That would have been nice, but I did not get into Kemba’s story until this movie was made. So, when it came to me, and I read just the first two sentences of what Kemba was going through, I knew 100% I had to direct this and work with her, not only because of her phenomenal story and who she is today, but because this touched home for me as it does people in our communities. When I was getting ready to go to Howard, my best friend, who I call a sister, we were raised together since we were two; we had a mutual friend in the church that we both saw as a big brother who asked her just to help him receive packages over the summer so she can make a little money for school and just get it to him. So, she did that and she was just taking these packages until one day her door gets kicked in by the feds, and there’s a  gun in her face, and then they realized that in these boxes was kilos of cocaine. And then that summer she was supposed to end up going to college but she ends up going to federal prison. It didn't matter her circumstances, where she came from, and how she was raised and that it was the first offense. It didn't matter. And so, I knew I had to not only tell the story so that people have fresh memories of Kemba, but that we’re bringing this to the foreground because these issues are still prevalent today with the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that do not consider the individual circumstances. So, not only for Kemba and all the Kembas that she has encountered when she was incarcerated, but for my family too and for so many of us who are affected by that. It affects our communities the most. 

Kemba: And Starr, when you were talking about Hampton days…back then the only thing they were warning us on all college campus was, don't walk by yourself at night on campus, and there were so many other cautionary tales that could be told to help guide our students, and one of the things that while we're talking about HBCUs, ever since I've been speaking, I make sure that audiences know that what happened to me could have happened to me at a PWI. Because I don't want parents to say, “Oh, we're not going to send our kids to an HBCU.” This can happen right everywhere.  

BET: Kelley, you made a great point because I've heard stories about someone, usually a woman, who trusted a man who asked her to take a package, and then the next thing you know, she’s locked up. 

Kelley: You’re bringing back memories, but someone tried that with me, somebody I knew, but not well enough to be as trusting to, said, “We just need for you to go to the airport and pick it up.” I was thinking about what happened to my best friend and was like, I'm not picking up anything. Imagine if I hadn’t seen that happen or we didn't have these discussions.

Kemba: And it could be something as complex as guys trying to wine and dine you or a guy could say, “Hey you and your girls can drive my car down to Miami,” and there are drugs stashed in the car, and they don’t know that the drugs are in the car. So, it's all different scenarios that could go down. 

BET: Kemba, earlier, you mentioned Michelle West, who got locked up as part of your case. She’s still in jail, but can you give me some bullet points about her story and what's happening with the situation? 

Kemba: She's a first-time offender, and she was sentenced to a double life sentence plus 50 years. She's already spent 30 years in prison; if you want more information about her, you can go on the Can Do Clemency Website, and there's also a petition where they talk about her case. There was a murder involved with the conspiracy that she was associated with, but the person who pulled the trigger is home. And so, I think it's been too long, and Michelle has positively impacted so many women who have come into the system. She did apply for clemency through President Obama and President Trump, and now she is awaiting a response from President Biden. So, we're part of the social impact campaign revolving around the film to get Michelle West's clemency and encourage President Obama to grant additional clemencies to governors nationwide. Her daughter came to one of our screenings here in LA. Her daughter is phenomenal, and I hope that they can be reunited. 

BET: Finally, I would like you to give me one of your favorite things about the movie and what you hope people take away from that. 

Kelley: One of my favorite things about the movie is the cast. Nesta Cooper became Kemba. Siddiq Saunderson played a very tough role, playing Khalif. I used to say to him that it felt like he was conjuring him like it wasn't Sadiq that you see on the screen. He is the polar opposite. I don't even know where he found that; then Michelle and Sean Patrick Thomas became her parents, so much so her parents were on set and loved them. So, the making of the film is phenomenal. I'm so excited for the world to see it. We were so blessed with the right people to portray these very complex, real people who went through a very challenging time, and I think we created a beautiful, safe space for the family to be in, and that's what I'm most proud of and loved. 

Kemba: That’s what I loved definitely, but speaking of safe spaces, I have two. I think one of them is with Elaine Jones, and basically, she says that if every woman made a wrong decision with who they dated we'd all be locked up, something like that, and it was in response to Creflo Dollar trying to push that judgmental envelope, like, well she did this, and she did that, and I just hope that it can encourage dialogue and safe spaces in our communities because often people are scared, and they're doing stuff, and suffering in silence, or embarrassed or ashamed. So that's one thing, and then the second thing is the scene where Siddiq and Nesta are on the bed and about to part. Siddiq says I want you to go so my son can be somebody great, better than me. I want young people to see that it doesn't matter like what walk of life you come from or what type of parents you have, for young people, just to recognize that whoever God has given them, that they’re human, and despite everything, that you can go out and be great. That scene hit me because my son went to college on a four-year scholarship and studied abroad during his sophomore and junior years. He's learned three languages; one of his minors was romance languages. During the pandemic, he went to grad school in Paris, and after that he worked in New York for Thom Browne, and now he's living in Madrid, working for an LVMH brand. There needs to be a separate story on that, but I want young people to realize that no matter what walk your mom may have been through or your dad may have gone through, you can still soar and build upon their positive qualities. Raising my son, it has been important to me that he knew all the colors. I'm grateful again for Kelley, Siddiq, and the cast because they understood those colors so the audience could be drawn into the characters, which was important.

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