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Llew Smith ’72

Llewellyn “Llew” Smith ’72 returned to campus in April as part of the 2024 DEIJ Speaker Series. Llew is a leading filmmaker in the documentary industry who explores how misunderstandings in race, science, and history continue to perpetuate social and racial inequities. He has been the recipient of the Peabody, the duPont, and other honors. In 2021, Black Public Media named Llew one of the Top 40 Game Changers in public media over the last 40 years.

Some groundbreaking projects Llew has produced, directed, or contributed to include Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement (1987); Race: The Power of an Illusion (2003);  Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? (2008); Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness (2009); American Denial (2015); Wounded Places (2015); and Slavery In Effect (2016).

More recently, Llew directed and was a writer for an episode of PBS’s NOVA program called “Computers vs. Crime in 2022. According to IMDB, this episode explores “the hidden biases, privacy risks, and design flaws of the artificial intelligence programs relied on by police departments and the courts.” Milton’s Department of Equity, Inclusion, and Justice hosted a screening of this episode followed by a Q&A with Smith.

“I’m always interested in stories that are connected to people, looking at social conditions, and that explore certain kinds of consequences. If the story doesn’t have consequences, I’m not interested. If the story doesn’t have a possibility of a real impact now, I’m not so interested,” Smith shared at an assembly moderated by student leaders in the Upper and Middle schools.

Smith spoke on his career in filmmaking and how he got into it. He shared that he “was drawn to film as a way of telling stories. Filmmaking was a way I discovered that I could tell stories in a structure that was nonlinear. It was three-dimensional. I’m always trying to tell a story that is very important and has an impact in a way that I haven’t seen before.”

Audience engagement and connection are essential, according to Llew. “What makes most films impactful, even feature films, is when the audience’s expectations are not met but are challenged in a certain way. I always try to think about when making a film, ‘Where is the audience’s head at? And how can I try to engage them?’ I’m always trying to get the audience to connect with the film in such a way that they are engaged in creating the story,” said Smith, who believes that the audience is a key collaborator in the process of filmmaking.

Editing is one of Smith’s favorite parts of filmmaking. He shared that he “hardly ever starts at the beginning. I always start at the place I want to start. You start editing with the seeds that grab your gut, the ones that you’re most excited about.” 

“One thing I’ve learned is that remembered information is connected to emotion. If I don’t have an investment in the information, I’m not going to remember it,” said Smith. Through programs such as the DEIJ speaker series, the Milton community is able to invest in information and insights from experts in many ways and in a variety of fields. A few weeks prior, author, foreign policy strategist, and former diplomat Farah Pandith ’86 came to campus as part of this series. 

You can read more about Llew Smith 72 in an archived article from the Fall 2014 edition of Milton Magazine: “Landing the Viewer Inside the Story.”