Upon entering Delmar Hall last Thursday for the St. Louis stop of the 2nd Annual Real to Reel Showcase, organizer Eddie Holman said he wanted to introduce me to this year’s national winner Damien D. Smith. The event is the social element of a national competition presented in collaboration with Codeblack Entertainment that gives emerging African American filmmakers an opportunity to get their work seen before a broad audience – including industry professionals and peers.
Smith also happened to be from St. Louis. He was fresh from South Beach, where he was presented with the Real to Reel national grand prize at the 2018 American Black Film Festival (held annually in mid-June) as director of “Daddy’s Big Girl.” The film was among the three screened at Thursday’s local Real to Reel event, but I knew him from another film of his that played in St. Louis
“Oh my God, you did ‘The Mannequin Movie’,” I said with an obnoxious level of excitement after instantly recognizing him when Smith turned around. “You saw that,” Smith said, with not quite the same level of excitement, but close.
As a judge of the shorts film entries for the St. Louis International Film Festival three years ago, I was charged with watching and rating his debut movie “About That…”
I was so moved by the film that I wanted to reach out to tell him as much, but it wouldn’t have been appropriate. I always hoped that he would keep at the craft after seeing his smartly done debut film about a man whose extreme loneliness caused him to lose grip with reality.
Upon learning he was the national winner of Gentleman Jack’s Real to Reel competition, I couldn’t help but get excited all over again that he was still making films. “Daddy’s Big Girl,” written by and starring Latham Ford, illustrates how a father’s love can at times be stronger than life itself.
His latest film left an impression on not only me, but the entire viewing audience. And this time I was able to talk with him about it.
“Black men want to be there for their children – and black men are there for their children,” Smith said. “There a lot of negative stereotypes that claim we are not, but we are. There are a great population of black men in the world out here fighting the good fight. Negative gets more attention, but what I wanted to do with “Daddy’s Big Girl” was offer a cinematic counternarrative.”
Smith said he tries to tell human stories that feature black people, not stories that are stereotypically expected to be told about us, or even from us.
“Fatherhood, that’s a human being story. Mental Illness, that is a human being story,” Smith said. “My film ‘Second’ tackles PTSD, which is a human being story. I just address these human topics through the lens of the world I know.”
Rooted on Rosalie
Smith’s film company 4910 Rosalie Productions is named after the address in the Mark Twain Neighborhood near Kingshighway and West Florissant where he grew up. He was so obsessed with film and television that he was given the nickname “TV Guide” by family and people in his inner circle.
He would get Blockbuster rentals for gifts and absorb every element of movies from a host of genres. Soon after he graduated from Riverview Gardens High School, he took an amazing leap for the sake of pursuing his craft. Without knowing a single soul, he packed up and left the North Side for New York City to train as an actor.
“People in my neighborhood on the north side of St. Louis, we were often led to believe these choices were not options for us,” Smith said. “I had to develop the courage to be able to do something different.
All of the artists I respected and admired got their start there – Dustin Hoffman, Denzel Washington, Jeffrey L. Wright – they studied in New York, so that’s where I wanted to go and wanted to focus on.”
Smith said his upbringing in St. Louis was instrumental in navigating the hustle and bustle of New York.
“Growing up on the north side, you have to know how to read a situation,” Smith said. “You learn how to talk – and you learn how to be quiet. Sometimes the best thing to do is to sit back, listen and learn.”
He attended the Sande Shurin Acting Conservatory and went on to perform in Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway and regional productions and several tours on stage. His love for film and television never left him as he maneuvered through the theater scene in New York.
After years of stage acting, he decided to move to Los Angeles to focus on film and television – and work behind the camera. “I felt like that was the next evolution of my craft,” Smith said. Soon after arriving in Los Angeles a few years ago, he hooked up with fellow St. Louisan Reesha Archibald. She has served as a producer on three of his films – including “Daddy’s Big Girl.” He has created three shorts, has a documentary about production and is working on his first full-length feature narrative film since he added filmmaking to his creative mix.
“I’m living my dream,” Smith said. “Sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s a struggle. There are ups and downs. But what I can say is that I’m always happy.
I get to make a living making art, both as an actor and telling the stories I want to tell as a director. That’s what allows me to keep a smile on my face.”
Smith’s film “About That…” is available for purchase on iTunes and he can be reached via social media @damiendsmith on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.