Less than a week after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, San Antonio-born, Austin-based filmmaker Ya’Ke Smith responded with a powerful short film that simultaneously eulogizes Floyd and points the way toward a rebirth. “Dear Bruh” uses original and found footage and its poetic narration to sock the viewer in the jaw with a clear-eyed view of how Black people have been “othered,” as Smith explained, but it also offers some measure of hope, all in less than 10 minutes.
The film opens with a solitary Black man running down the street, echoing Ahmaud Arbery’s fatal jog. It returns to the scene again, interspersed between scenes of young boys playing, families celebrating, protest in the streets, and images of those lost to police violence.
“George Floyd is not new. Trayvon Martin is not new. Eric Garner is not new. Breonna Taylor is not new,” Smith said in an interview by phone from his home in Austin, where he’s an Associate Professor in the Radio-Television-Film department at the University of Texas-Austin.
“’Dear Bruh,’” said Smith, “is my way of…giving voice to all of these men who have been murdered in this way, and then also, you know, to just rewrite this real negative narrative that you have of Black men in the media. Even though we suffer through a lot of these heinous and atrocious crimes, we still find joy. Joy in our families, joy in our jobs. Joy in having brotherhood with each other.”
The juxtaposition of the joyous images in the short with Smith’s poetry, narrated by different voices — “You were never allowed to be a boy, were you? You were a threat from conception” — lays bare the way society places Black men and women in a box that’s all too often labeled “threat” rather than “opportunity.” It’s a situation that Smith found himself in a year ago, as a father.
“We had an issue with the UT daycare where my son was being profiled,” Smith said, the frustration palpable. “My son was being singled out, being accused of being violent. This (was) a 3-year-old! Can you only imagine? We are stamped from the beginning as threats.”This kind of early profiling snowballs into a view of Black people as “others,” said Smith. Referring to the book “Stamped From the Beginning,” Smith explained, “As long as you see me as a threat, as long as you see me as violent, as long as you see me as someone to be feared, you can never fully see me as human. And it is the dehumanization of Black people that allows for them to be murdered. With a knee to their neck, for nine minutes, being video recorded, while people stand by and plea for a cop to get up.”
Although “Dear Bruh” ends with scenes of chaos in the streets following George Floyd’s death, and an indictment of the United States’ racism by James Baldwin, Smith says he has reason for hope.
“Part of me believes this is a transformational moment,” Smith said. “Donald Trump, Coronavirus, and George Floyd, they all had to happen right now in order for this movement (to happen).”
Smith explained the unique combination of rhetoric from the Trump campaign, along with everyone consuming more media than ever during the pandemic, and finally Floyd’s death, brought things to a head.
“America is finally sort of awakening to its original sin,” Smith said. “They are able to admit that Confederate statues should not be there. They are able to admit that there needs to be a rewriting, right? Of literal laws that have in many ways ‘othered’ the Black body. We need to see more Black people in places of power. However, the cynical part of me says that if we don’t keep pushing, if we don’t keep asking… or really dismantle the system and erect another one in its place, then we will find ourselves right back here next year.”
The secondary title of “Dear Bruh” is “A Eulogy. A Baptism. A Call To Action,” and Smith said this time offers an opportunity for white Americans to ask themselves some tough questions, and eventually come out on the other side a more powerful ally.
“It is not until you baptize yourself and really allow yourself to stick with those images, to sit with your history, to admit that there might have been a KKK Grand Wizard in your family, to accept that there is a slave owner, master, overseer in your lineage, to accept that you have in many ways benefitted from an institution or system that has disenfranchised Black people. That’s some hard, deep, spiritual work that white America has to do. And I think once we do that work, and we understand how we’ve acted in racist ways, then that’s when we wake up.”