by Diana Wilson
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MPI Original Films (MPI), in association with BET, announced the casting of Nesta Cooper (Bliss, See) in the lead role of the feature-length film Kemba. Award-winning filmmaker Kelley Kali (I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking), Lalo’s House) will direct the MPI and BET Original Film inspired by the life of criminal justice reform advocate Kemba Smith.

In Kemba, based on Kemba’s life story, a college student falls in love with a man, only to learn he is a drug kingpin who leads her down a path of abuse and manipulation, placing her in the middle of the government’s “war on drugs,” and ultimately landing her in federal prison. The film will focus on themes paramount in today’s national conversations, including institutional racism, racial inequality, and the vital need for criminal justice and prison reform. The film will have its television premiere on BET, with additional launch and distribution plans to be announced at a later date. Principal photography will begin this October in Atlanta.

Starring as Kemba is Nesta Cooper, who recently starred in Mike Cahill’s Amazon feature Bliss opposite Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek. She can be seen starring opposite Jason Momoa and Alfre Woodard in Season 3 of the Apple TV+ series See, written and executive produced by Steven Knight and directed by Francis Lawrence.

Director Kelley Kali is an alumna of Howard University and the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. She was the only woman selected to direct the first creole dramatic TV series in Belize, Noh Matta Wat, for which she won the Paul Robeson Award. She then worked with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s New Form to develop the web series The Discovery of Dit Dodson, which competed in top-tier film festivals across the country. Her 2018 film Lalo’s House won the 45th Annual Student Academy Award and was in consideration for the 91st Annual Academy Awards. She also recently wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the original feature film I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking), which was an early pick for the narrative competition at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. It went on to win Special Jury Recognition for Multi-hyphenate Storyteller (an award they created for her). The film can be seen on BET and BET Her, Amazon, iTunes, and HBO Europe. Kelley is in post-production on her current feature which will later be announced.

Throughout her career, Kelley has been awarded the Directors Guild of America Student Filmmaker Award, the KCET Fine Cut Award, Shadow & Act’s Rising Award, the Programmers’ Award at the Oscar-qualifying Pan African Film Festival, the Jury Award at the Diversity in Cannes Showcase sponsored by Viola Davis and Julius Tennon’s JuVee Productions, and several others in the past few years. Her work has also been featured at the American Black Film Festival with Kelley recognized as one of the top Emerging Directors and at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival. And in 2021, she was selected as a recipient of the Academy Gold Fellowship for Women.

Nesta is represented by UTA, Lauren Levitt & Assoc., Industry Entertainment, and Johnson, Shapiro, Slewett & Kole. Kelley is represented by Greg Pedicin at Gersh, manager Capella Fahoome, and Nina Shaw and Tom Greenberg at Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein Lezcano Bobb & Dang.

From MPI, Stacey Parks, Lana Link, and Rob Pfaltzgraff will produce. MPI’s Nick Reid, Kemba Smith, and BET’s Maureen Guthman and Connie Orlando will executive produce. Jon Marc Sandifer and Lorisa Bates will co-executive produce with MPI’s Hannah Ruth Earl and BET’s John Baldasare serving as consulting producers.

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