Director Ya'Ke Smith's 'Wolf' Exposes Sex Abuse In the Black Church
Filmmaker says he loves the Church, but the temple needs cleansing.
There was a time when sexual abuse in the church was thought to be the exclusive province of the Catholic church, but in recent years mushrooming allegations of sexual abuse have reared its ugly head in the black church as well, shaking once heavily populated congregations to their very foundations.
With his new movie "Wolf," filmmaker Ya'ke Smith wants to shine a light in the darkness of a taboo subject that has lurked (and thrived) in the shadows for years.
"The title comes from the analogy 'a wolf in sheep's clothing,'" explained Smith. "The preacher is hiding in this God-like clothing, coming off as a spiritual person who is helping everyone, but he's lurking through the congregation, looking for the weaklings. From his actions, he is also turning other boys into wolves, promoting that cycle of abuse."
In the wake of the Bishop Eddie Long scandal, where the once blemish-free, mega-church preacher found himself settling out of court with a group of teenage boys who accused him of luring them with extravagant gifts in exchange for sex, there are those who might say that "Wolf" is coming at an opportune time. The film has been making its rounds around the country via the film festival circuit. Though it has yet to secure distribution for screenings in movie theaters, it is still one of the most talked about independent films today.
Loop 21 caught up with Smith to ask what compelled him to turn this forbidden topic into a film.
Loop 21: Might as well get the obvious out of the way. Is "Wolf" about the Bishop Eddie Long scandal?
Ya'ke Smith: No. It is not. I was writing this movie before it even broke. And literally, about a month after I was finished, the scandal broke. It's not based on that, but that being said, after it happened, I researched and followed the case and some of it wound up in the script, but it wasn't based solely on Eddie Long.
Loop 21: How crazy is that? It's almost like proof in the pudding that you're covering something that's happening in the community right now.
Smith: Exactly. Whenever I start writing anything, it takes me a long time because I want to make sure I'm writing something that people need. I'm a very spiritual person, so I'm always asking God to tell me the right things to say. And even with this film, it can come off that I'm attacking the church, but I'm not. I'm just bringing something to the forefront that I saw was going on for a long time. So that case let me know I was on the right path.
Loop 21: How long had you been writing that script? What motivated you to begin writing?
Smith: I grew up in the church and I know people who were sexually abused. The story had always been inside of me; I knew at some point I had to tell it. I just didn't know what medium I wanted to use. But then I saw a documentary called "Deliver Us From Evil," [the filmmakers] talked to a priest who molested kids, and talked to his victims as well. It actually gave the pedophile humanity, not condoning what he did, but the film showed the cycle of abuse.
Loop 21: How has the feedback been so far?
Smith: It's been mostly positive. I haven't really gotten any major backlash at all. Yeah, you have instances when somebody says it exposes too much. But the majority of the feedback has been people saying 'thank you.' After every screening somebody comes up and hugs me and says, 'thank you for telling my story.' During a screening in Chicago, a guy stood up and said he was molested from age nine to 19 and just started getting help last year. That's why I made the film, so people could talk and get their freedom.
Loop 21: Have you screened the movie at any churches?
Smith: I've had people contact me and say they want to screen it, but they never follow up. I was going to screen it at my church, where we actually shot the movie, but we wound up doing it at a theater. Everybody showed up though. I want to show this movie in churches, that's where the healing needs to take place. I had a preacher tell me he was molested when he was nine, and what I got from the story is: nothing happened. The guy who did it is probably still around. We create this facade that everything is going to be ok. God gives us the ability to make things right, but not all of us do so. It's an uncomfortable movie to watch. It will make you squirm in your seat, get up and walk out, but it's truth that we need to see.
Loop 21: What kind of research did you do in making this film? Did you talk to victims? Suspects?
Smith: First thing I did was go online and find chat rooms where men had been molested, but never told anybody. Reading these stories in gory details. You could tell they were freeing themselves, especially in an anonymous room. I went on YouTube and found videos of pedophiles telling their story too. Some with no remorse, some with it. Many of them said it was an urge that they just couldn't control because it happened to them. I also looked on Facebook and found people to talk to. Some of them were even friends of mine that I never knew had this happen to them. From that, I took different bits of information and put it in the script.
Loop 21: After finishing this film, did it change how you look at the black church?
Smith: Honestly, it hasn't changed my perception at all. I'm still very much a part of the church. What I think happens to people is that they equate their pastor with God, that's dangerous. If your pastor messes up, and it shatters your relationship with God, you probably didn't have a real relationship with God to begin with. The black church does so much good in the community, we can't deny that, but I'd be lying if I said there weren't churches just out for your money and to play with your emotions. So that's why movies like this need to exist, to snuff them out.
Check out more of Ya'ke Smith's work at ExodusFilmworks.com.