By Darlene Donloe
Cornelius Walker sat front row center at the Museum of Tolerance recently literally watching his life flash before his eyes.
It was for a screening of Black Sheep, a documentary short (27 min.) about his youth that is currently nominated for Best Short Documentary at the upcoming 2019 Oscars® taking place this Sunday in Hollywood.
The short (pun intended) synopsis for the film is that it’s about a black teenager whose world was turned upside down by racism. But, it’s about so much more. It’s a coming of age story, but more importantly, a story of survival. It takes place some 15 years ago.
When it opens there is a news report about the November 27, 2000 killing of Damilola Taylor, a black 10-year-old schoolboy, who was stabbed to death. It became one of England’s most high-profile killings. Because Walker was also 10 and lived only five minutes from where Taylor was killed, Walker’s mother became scared that her children could suffer the same fate. So, having done no research, she moved them out of London and on to a white estate in Essex run by what turned out to be a racist gang. That’s when Walker’s problems begin. He is brutally attacked because of the color of skin. The incident left him not only bloodied and bruised but scared and confused – so much so that Walker, in a desperate attempt to fit in – tries to change his identity by lightening his skin, wearing blue eye contacts and upping his clothing game. Before he knows it, Walker is slowly losing himself – and dissolving into the element he once despised. It's a culture of violence and hatred. Walker said he wanted to be friends with members of the gang because he wanted to be loved.
The role of Walker is portrayed by Kai Francis Lewis. The real Walker is 27 and lives in London.
Black Sheep, a Guardian commissioned film, is directed by Ed Perkins and produced by Jonathan Chinn. Perkins and Chinn, along with Walker, were up for some questions after the screening that was presented by the Guardian, and The Museum of Tolerance. Black Sheep is produced by LIGHTBOX, The Guardian and The Filmmaker Fund.
Q: Talk about the movie.
EP (Ed Perkins): This is a different kind of story. It’s hard to watch. I hope it starts a conversation. There is no one braver than the young man whose story this is.
Q: Talk about shooting the film.
EP: We went back to the actual places where things happened to Cornelius.
JC (Jonathan Chinn): I think this film speaks to what’s going on in this country. I’m surprised by how some people in the U.S. connect with this story. Stories like this are happening all over the country.
Q: Walker’s story is compelling.
EP: This is not a single story. It’s a complex tale. We felt strongly that we didn’t want to wrap this up – but to force the audience to look into Cornelius’s eyes. It’s an uncomfortable feeling for us all to look at ourselves and our society.
JC: It’s a cop-out to say, well that just happened back then. I wanted the audience to experience Cornelius as direct as possible – as I did.
DD (Darlene Donloe): Did you ever want to go back to talk to the gang members who traumatized you? If you did, what would you want to know?
CW (Cornelius Walker): I already have all my answers. I spoke to one of them and asked, “why do you hate me?” He said, “You come into our area and act like it’s your place.” That’s when I realized they were just scared. They were just scared. When you think about it, it’s kind of the answer to racism.
DD: Are you in touch with anyone else? What did you find out about them?
CW: Some of them went to jail. One went for attempted murder. Some of them are doing well. I’m actually friends with some of the racists on Facebook.
DD: Eventually you left the area and moved. Where did you go?
CW: When I was 18, I moved to Canada. My mom was there. I was secluded. I was always to myself. I began to read a lot of books. I remember watching a lot of movies. I remember Into The Wild, a movie Sean Penn directed. I loved that movie and how it made me feel. I wanted others to feel the same things I felt. I also watched a lot of movies by Spielberg (Steven) and Spike (Lee). I found myself.