That could have been one of you guys.
You hear it often: “Just fit in.” Parents say it to their children while friends wield peer pressure for similar goals. But those sentiments move beyond words when it comes to a world so ingrained with racism that some are deluded enough to believe it doesn’t exist. Actions begin portraying this mantra as a byproduct of those who deem to call others inferior. Racism at its core is a philosophy wherein a people demean “others” via violent, political, and/or psychological actions simply because they are different—a mirror with the potential to label them the “others” instead. Racists therefore crave homogeneity because they’re afraid of losing their societal control. They breed entitlement, work towards projecting it on a global scale, and actively fight to keep others under foot.
Cornelius Walker‘s story might take place two decades ago, but you’d be hard-pressed to deny things have gotten even worse since. As a child of Nigerian immigrants, the London murder of young Damilola Taylor (also of Nigerian descent) forced his parents to take stock and leave. What they didn’t understand at the time was that the possibility of crime wasn’t something that disappeared upon moving to quieter suburbs. If anything it could actually grow when you add race to the equation. White populations love to preach gentrification as a means of securing safe havens because its inherent erasure of POCs provides them power. So while Essex may seem better than London on paper, it soon becomes far worse for a black family “threatening” its white way of life.
Director Ed Perkins‘ Black Sheep places Walker on-camera to share his account of what went down as a consequence of his family’s relocation. It’s a static high-definition set-up that ensures we see every micro-expression of complex emotion conjured by the memories. Cross-cut with this interview are reenactments starring Kai Francis Lewis as an outsider lost within an environment that doesn’t want him—both the neighborhood’s white supremacist bigotry and the gradually destruction within his own home. We therefore watch as the family “in charge” of Walker’s community makes his life a living hell via Lewis’ constant run-ins with epithets and fists while the man himself finds it difficult to describe the violence he experienced behind closed doors too. This is the life those with privilege will never understand.
No matter how heart-wrenching this display of systemic racism proves (whether through the aforementioned physical means or economical ones via his father’s attempt to find employment closer to home), however, nothing can prepare you for the psychological cost of Cornelius’ attempts at breaking free. What he does to “fit in” becomes the crucial evidence more people need to comprehend so that we can make headway towards the fantasy that is a post-racial world. His life holds the receipts that reveal how demoralizing, self-destructive, minimizing, and complicit a phrase like “All Lives Matter” becomes in the face of something as powerfully cogent as the “Black Lives Matter” movement. This is what it means to live with so much fear that you must denounce your God-given identity just to survive.