Trip to Bountiful
The endless bounty of human stories beckons a nonfiction producer.
Ryan Paul Lobo
David Shadrack Smith is a natural-born storyteller, but he doesn't always stick to the rules.
As president of Part2 Pictures, he's produced a slew of groundbreaking, award-winning films and docuseries about the human condition, including CNN's This Is Life with Lisa Ling and OWN's Belief, hosted by Oprah Winfrey. While Smith's narratives each have a beginning and a middle, they don't necessarily have an end.
"Each show is distinct, but I see them as chapters forming one big picture of an ever-evolving America," he says. "I want to expose audiences to people in the far corners of Earth, or to those living right next door that they don't know anything about, and forge a real connection. We're always looking for the emotional core."
A former journalist and producer for National Geographic Explorer, Smith says his story ideas "come from so many places — figments of imagination that turn out to be real [or] an issue I'm fascinated about and everyone else feels the same. And our broadcast and network collaborators bring us great talent with their own perspectives."
Case in point: Belief, the landmark 2015 series on the quest for spirituality. "After two colleagues from NatGeo suggested the topic, we got it in front of Oprah, since we were working with OWN at the time," he recalls. "We made our pitch — production schedules, budgets, locations and all. Then she said, 'What do you believe?' That was the one question we hadn't prepared for. It was clear that this was going to be a beautiful global journey we would all have together."
Smith says his main role is making sure that every project has a unique visual approach and its own organic voice. For that, he relies on staffers at Part2's Brooklyn studios. Women hold more than half the key positions, which could explain why the programming is so attuned to viewers' emotional IQ — and so good at pulling heartstrings. "I don't know if that is related to a female perspective or not," he says. "I don't think there are female or male genres."
This Is Life's 10th season, which premieres in September, will explore identity issues, divorced dads, the furry fandom subculture and the tattooed teens of violent MS13 gangs. "At first, we were concerned that we'd run out of stories," Smith says, "but we realized that they're endless. As Lisa [Ling] once said to me, life can be beautiful or ugly, but it's ours."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2018