by Mark Van Streefkerk
“Being Black in America” is a short film based on a poem by 14-year-old Lincoln Wilmore. Originally written last year, the poem counters racist stereotypes with positive affirmations and messages for Black youth, ending on a revolutionary high note with footage from the We Want To Live rally on June 7.
In the film, Wilmore gazes confidently at the camera as he begins, “Being Black in America, you’re often looked at differently when they [sic] meet. Not for the content of your character, but still by the color of your skin. Being Black in America means you’re athletic, not academic. Certainly a rapper, entertainer, or maybe even a thug, born and raised in the hood or the streets or on them drugs.”
He goes on to say, “These are all stereotypes, because certainly we are much more than that. Being African American means you are amazing. You are smart, strong, creative, geniuses, inventors, and kind, full of an undeniable resilience, strength, and wisdom.”
Just shy of four minutes, the film shows Wilmore walking on an outdoor basketball court, then by the steps of Emerson Elementary School, at the Rainier Beach Safeway, and finally against a blue backdrop at the Othello-UW Commons, where inspiring words are overlaid as text. Co-directors Derek Johnson and Ali Scattergood, of Kai Films and Oak Light Films respectively, worked closely with Wilmore and his parents on the vision. “We wanted people to have time with [Wilmore] on screen. The slow-moving portraits give us both a sense of his emotion and his appearance,” Johnson explained.
Johnson met Rainier Beach neighbors Larry and Cathie Wilmore while working on community-based events and learned about their mentorship group Fathers and Sons Together (FAST). Johnson helped document FAST, including it in the Southend Connect series he produced, with Scattergood co-directing and editing. During that time Cathie shared her son’s poem with him.
“I was blown away with the piece,” Johnson said. “[Cathie] asked me if we could collaborate on a film project. I of course said yes … [Wilmore] was so great to work with and so inspirational. Cathie contacted me about two weeks ago, and we talked about editing together the whole poem into a film. Considering current events, it was a no-brainer.”
When he was only 13, Wilmore began writing what would become “Being Black in America” for a Personal Development class at school. The prompt was to write about identity. “We spent about an hour writing it, and then I would usually just submit it, but I really connected with the poem. I decided to start working on it after school,” Wilmore remembered. “I was really able to write down all of my emotions. I really took my time with this poem.”
Wilmore has regularly turned to poetry to express his emotions and has another one in process titled “The Truth.” He was “super-excited” when presented with the opportunity to turn “Being Black in America” into a film and felt honored to share his message. Filming began last year.
“In my poem I said, ‘You are smart, you are strong, creative, geniuses, inventors, and kind, and I really wanted those words to just resonate with people. Especially as African Americans, we belong, and connecting with youths around the world just like me — that’s really my goal,” he affirmed. “I also wanted to get the point across that there’s a lot of stereotypes like we’re thugs, or we’re entertainers, or are born for the streets, but I wanted to convey the message that we are much more than that, and we can change the world. We are simply amazing.”
As proof of that, footage from the We Want To Live march from Othello park to the Rainier Beach Safeway was included at the end of the film. Even though “Being Black in America” was written last year, it takes on even greater meaning as around the world communities take to the streets demanding justice for Black lives and a more equitable society.
You can watch the film on YouTube on Thursday, June 18, at 4 p.m. here.
Viewers are invited to join the conversation on the film’s Facebook page.
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.