Ya'Ke likes to direct actors. "That's my thing," he says confidently, as if he's stating that he has a head full of dreadlocks or that he grew up on the east side of San Antonio. Born Dwain Ya'Ke Allen Smith Jr., Ya'Ke (as he's known both professionally and to his friends) is more than just an up-and-coming local filmmaker (splitting his time between San Antonio and Austin). At 27, he's made three highly successful short films, been nominated for a Student Academy Award, screened on Showtime, played at Cannes, and completed his Master of Fine Arts in directing at the University of Texas (which is where I first met Ya'Ke in 2003). Currently, he's teaching a directing workshop at UT and developing a feature script set for production in early 2009. Exhausted yet? Ya'Ke isn't. He's just getting started. His most recent short and graduate thesis film, "The Second Coming," premieres on HBO on Feb. 4 and runs through March 2.
Not long after I arrive at his Eastside apartment, Ya'Ke starts handing me DVDs. "Have you seen this? Great performances. This, too – have you watched this?" More movies come off the shelf. "I'm going to take you all the way back to '72," he chuckles, pulling out a DVD for Lady Sings the Blues (Diana Ross' classic portrayal of Billie Holiday). His smile is followed by a reverent pause. "She was awesome in that movie. I just love seeing people that can perform."
Ya'Ke repeatedly reminds me that his name means "son of God, great warrior" in Swahili. To some people, this might be a burdensome moniker. How do you begin to live up to that? And with his wide smile and bellowing laugh, Ya'Ke doesn't necessarily come across as a warrior. Until he starts talking about his movies. Says Ya'Ke: "The films [I make] are about this class of people who get swept under the rug, people we don't see films about. Those are the people that I grew up with. That's the world that I know. When I was growing up, I used to go and read about all these great people – Billie Holiday, Martin [Luther] King, Malcolm X – I would read these stories about these people who pulled themselves up from poverty, and I would look around at the people who were in my environment, and I would think, 'If these people can pull themselves up, why can't we?'"
The son of a substitute-teacher mother and a mostly absent father, Ya'Ke remembers growing up in East San Antonio: "It's just like the hood of any other city. There's poverty, there's drugs, there's gangs. It's not the Alamo or the River Walk. It's like a whole other city. It's hard out there, and people don't necessarily know that."
After watching John Singleton's depiction of life in South Central Los Angeles, Boyz n the Hood, when he was 11 years old, Ya'Ke's world changed. "That film impacted me because I was dealing with those issues. I saw those things, and I knew those people. When I was young, we had the bullets flying through our house. Those things were happening. And I want to make movies like that." At 15, he picked up his first camera and has been at it ever since.
Indeed, Ya'Ke's films reflect the struggles he's witnessed and experienced. "Shopping," which won multiple film-festival awards and aired nationally on television, follows the story of a single mother (played by his wife, Mikala Gibson, a regular in his films) who steals food to feed her kids. "Hope's War," which won the Directors Guild of America Student Film Award and played at Cannes, is about a U.S. soldier who violently struggles to adapt after returning from Iraq.
With "The Second Coming," Ya'Ke continues his trail of success. The story of a father who returns home from prison to make amends with his son, the film was nominated for a Student Academy Award and won the HBO Short Film Award at the American Black Film Festival, which came with airtime on HBO and a check for $20,000. But what Ya'Ke remembers best about the film's L.A. premiere is what happened in the bathroom afterward.
"I was in the restroom, and all these guys came in. It was funny. They surrounded me, and they were just like, 'Man, I haven't spoken to my father in years, and for some reason this film makes me want to go and give him a call.' I'm not going to say the film is a call to action. But it is."
"The Second Coming" premieres on HBO Feb. 4. For more information about Ya'Ke's films, visit www.exodusfilmworks.com.
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