Ya’ke Smith’s new film, Dear Bruh, opens with a collage of videos and images that showcase Black men and boys laughing, smiling, and embracing. These patches of joy are then contrasted with the faces of Trayvon Martin and Emmitt Till, before spiraling into a collage of funeral ceremonies, as well as photos of those killed at the hands of white vigilantes and police officers. In a pleading voice-over, actors read a poem Smith wrote during the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests. “I ached, because I realized that when they killed you, they killed a piece of me too,” the poem reads. “Your death was not singular. It’s happening again and again, carried out to remind me where I stand.” The nine-minute short film, which is subtitled “A Eulogy. A Baptism. A Call to Action,” ends with recent footage from marches and protests.
An associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s Radio-Television-Film department, Smith is a social justice filmmaker, father, and husband. For nearly two decades, the San Antonio native has been making films that grapple with race and social change. His 2006 short, Hope’s War, was a searing portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder and the legacy of the Iraq War. Katrina’s Son, from 2011, focused on a young boy searching for his mother after Hurricane Katrina. And a year later, his first feature-length work, Wolf, explored psychological trauma stemming from molestation in a Black church.
Now, Smith says his work is targeted toward making the world a different place for his toddler son. Part of that is through his work at UT, where he’s also served since 2019 as the Moody College of Communication’s first associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Smith spoke with Texas Monthly about Dear Bruh, the importance of Black historical knowledge, and finding joy in times of grief.
Texas Monthly: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience growing up in San Antonio, and how that inspired your work?
Ya’Ke Smith: In order to talk about my experience I have to talk about my family’s history. My uncle helped bring the MLK March to San Antonio. He owned a record store and bookstore, but I called it an African American cultural center because you would walk in there were books about African American history, antiquity, and African queens and kings, MLK, Malcolm X, James Baldwin. I remember he had a Huey P. Newton chair … and so I sort of grew up around that. It was expected of me to know my history and to understand from which I came.
I understood from an early age what it meant to be othered and to have others look at you as a “throw away,” but I was blessed to have Black teachers, Black women who nurtured me and carried me forward.
I grew up in the projects of San Antonio, and there was surveillance everywhere. I’ve been around all that, but I understood at an early age that I had something to offer to the world and that I had to use my voice to fight injustice.
TM: Right now, as the country is reckoning with race and racial violence, how do you approach the work of educating young Black people on their history?
YS: Schools today were built to control us, and in many ways the school system strips us of that history and reminds us of our inferiority. It is imperative that we as Black people remind ourselves and our young people of who they are. We have to offer that back to them, because the justice and school systems will strip them of that.
It’s important that we usher them through those spaces as gently as you can. They need love, because they’ve felt so much aggression from other people. I try to help my students understand that it has nothing to do with who they really are and more with who others think they are.
TM: Is that what you try to instill as a professor?
YS: If you’re in the wrong environment you can feel like your story doesn’t matter. It’s a matter of letting students know that it’s okay to center their stories and themselves, and not to let anybody shut them up.
I know my films aren’t always popular. If I would have made Dear Bruh three months ago, it would have had a different reaction. It was made at this time, in this season, because it’s ripe now and people want to see it and they’re sensitive to that, but I’ve been making this work forever.
There’s a purposeful denial of white supremacy, even though it permeates everything we do every day.
TM: Speaking of Dear Bruh, can you tell me a little but about how this poem and the video came together?
YS: I started writing Dear Bruh in 2014 or 2015, and it was in response to Travon Martin, Eric Garner, and others who had been murdered by cops or white vigilantes.
I set out to create twenty-one days of reflection, and in that reflection I had poems, calls to action, and short films. I was just making these things to process the grief that I felt and also to give voice to others that may not have the words to voice how traumatic this stuff is for Black people.
I always knew that I wanted to hire actors and poets to read that and create a film.
When Ahmaud Arbery was killed [in February], I could no longer wait. He was publicly executed and his killer could literally leave that crime scene.
I think the title is telling. It’s a way to celebrate those lives. A baptism is a way for Black people to literally wash our minds of these traumatic images. Racism does something physical to the body. It harms the body.
Code-switching is harmful psychologically and mentally, because that means I have to put on a mask every day. It’s about survival so then you have to go in with that trauma and then have others make you think that you’re imagining things. That’s traumatic to your psyche.
To your physical body.
TM: You mentioned that someone said this short film made them cry?
YS: I want Black people to have a good cry. We need to have a good cry. We must process that trauma and then a call to action. I want us to hit the streets and demand real systemic change, or we’re going to be back where we are now in three months.
We need to stop asking for change and demand it.
TM: You mention that for Black people the film is a sort of baptism, a cleansing. Would it be fair to say that this is a sort of baptism for white people as well, but of a different kind?
YS: I think that goes back to that call to action. It’s easy for white people to turn it off, but [watching] this is being baptized by fire. You are forced to see and forced to hear the trauma of what it means to be othered your whole life.
Black lives are fragile. Someone can literally weaponize the police against you; the lady in New York [who called the cops on a Black birdwatcher] did it. She knew the exact words to say to get them to come. He could have been murdered because of that.
I want them to face that.
TM: One thing I noticed about the film was the amount of vulnerability and intimacy between the Black men on screen. What does that as well as Black joy mean to you in this moment?
YS: Black joy is a threat to white America, because they expect me to walk around feeling the weight of racism on my neck. I’m not going to let that determine the way I walk through the world.
I’m going to instill love and joy in my son—and happiness, because I don’t want him to think the trauma makes him or breaks him.
It disrupts the negative stereotype of who Black men are. It’s through that joy that we survive. [Pauses] Girl, you got me over here preaching!
TM: I know, I was like come on through, then!
TM: We’re seeing a worldwide push for the protection of Black lives, but there is still a pattern where the voices of Black women are stifled, even while we are the ones who endure the most brutality. I’m thinking of the murders of Riah Milton, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells, Breonna King, and Oluwatoyin Salau. What’s your view on listening to Black women, especially queer and trans women?
YS: Women don’t get the credit that they deserve. When Black men think about trauma, it’s Black women we go to.
We have dished it out for too long without replenishing, honoring, and respecting Black women.
I think that it’s important that we celebrate them and stop trying mute their voices. Black women are on the front lines. I want to champion and love on Black women and make sure they are protected.
And it’s up to Black men to step up. Next I want to create a piece that shows the ways that Black women have been integral to the movement [for racial justice], and without them I don’t think the movement would have survived.
TM: Black people are in a constant cycle of grieving, and that’s been heightened lately as we explore our new normal and demand change. How are you finding solace?
YS: Spending time with my family has given me new joy. Getting on the phone with my mom and finding joy with her. It’s the little things.
It’s been hard especially as a dean whose primary job is to deal with these issues. We want to make sure that we’re making real change that you can see, and that means working seventy hours a week to make it happen with a lot of passionate folks.
This stuff can make you feel disconnected. Creating brings me joy because I can process through it … Also that connection to God for me and meditation has brought me lots of joy.
TM: You mention creating is your solace. What’s the importance of Black art at this moment?
YS: It’s important for us to support Black artists, who don’t get enough credit. Champion us, buy our books and films. Through our artists, we create road maps for our survival.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.