ArtFilm / TV
afropunk interview: darnell lamont walker talks animated feature “our song,” and finding happiness
By Ian Freeman
May 20, 2021
In the African Diaspora, stories and songs are important. Not just as a means to entertain but for generations they passed on history, wisdom, and sometimes tips and destinations. There are examples innumerable about the life lessons passed down in Aesop’s fables or how slaves passed carefully coded messages on escape plans in their songs. So writers and storytellers often became historians, scribe, educators, and even cartographer and cryptographer. In this grand tradition, Darnell Lamont Walker is trying to help people find happiness.
Darnell Lamont Walker is an award-winning writer, film-maker, and artist whose work has had him travel the world from Virginia to the Brooklyn home of the Huxtables to Norway and even to Seasame Street. The purpose for this wanderlust, which he acknowledges has only come clear recently, has been a lifelong pursuit to seek and lead others to happiness. And share the story so that others might find it. On this journey, he has made documentaries like Outside the House to help face Black mental illness and Seeking Asylum, which asks if America doesn’t love us would we be better off somewhere else? He has written stories like Creep, I Hate That I Have to Tell You, and The Most Beautiful Thing in the World about a mother and child’s journey to fulfill a promise to see the world. And now he brings us his first animated work, which he is crowdfunding, Our Song, a captivating tale of a father’s fears and a young boy’s dreams.
We spoke to Darnell about Our Song and his journey so far and what’s to come.
What sparked your interest in filmmaking and particularly animation?
I’ve been a storyteller since Rudy Huxtable wrote that fairytale in season 4 of The Cosby Show. The entire episode was dedicated to that story, and that was powerful for me – to see a Black kid creating something so fun, so dope, and something everyone loved, even my family, who loved laughing out loud as much as I did. Still do.
I wrote my own story about a kid who ran away from home and hopped on a train to some land where he’d never be found. When I got home, my folks were in the living room, reading it. There were no laughs, though. Just concern! They thought it was a true story and were ready to call the police. 7-year-old me probably should have been consoling them, but instead, I laughed and smiled, thinking, “wow, I must be a good writer.”
My interest began there, in 1988, and through time, I honed my talents as a poet, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and even an actor, looking for ways to tell my stories to anyone open to listening and watching. I became a documentary filmmaker when I took those talents abroad with my camera, shortly after Freddie Gray’s murder, and asked folks in other countries if they’d welcome American Black folks with open arms if we sought asylum in their country. The film created from those interviews took me to South Africa, where I decided to stay and create. While there, working on two more documentaries, a friend sent an application to the Sesame Street Writer’s Room. I’d never considered children’s media, even though I’d already written two children’s books. Animation seemed far away from where I was and where I wanted to be. I applied anyway, knowing they’d turn me down. But they didn’t.
I walked into the writing room, and within seconds, realized animation is where I’m supposed to be. My life has been dedicated to helping everyone find happiness, to help folks heal, to keep folks from breaking unnecessarily. With animation, I’ve been able to do all of that, especially for those who matter most – the kids! There’s something about animation that takes us to a place that live-action often can’t. It pulls us in and holds us until we’re done. Adults and kids alike. Some sort of nostalgia, maybe.
All that to say, thank you, Rudy Huxtable and thank you, Sesame Street, for creating the spark I’m using to light as much of the world as possible.
Tell us about Our Song and what made you feel like this was the time to make it?
Our Song is a love story. Between a loving couple, then between that couple and their beautiful boy. At the same time, it’s the story about a boy born with a disability and how a father’s fear of the heartbreak he feels his son is destined for weighs heavily on his son’s dream of playing the piano – like his dad. His condition is ectrodactyly, the congenital absence of all or part of one or more fingers or toes. Over the last few years, I’ve watched countless hours of television and film, specifically animation, and the lack of Black and brown children is saddening. The lack of children with disabilities is saddening. We’re well beyond the time to make these projects, but as the cliché’ goes – better late than never.
Being a Black kid from Charlottesville, Virginia, who knew it was possible to become what I became after seeing Black kids elsewhere and adults doing it, I know how important representation is. Representation matters! And because we’re now experiencing a great shift in society and kids are growing up limitless, I want to be in that number that pushes more and more kids in that direction.
On top of that, though, as a storyteller and creator of children’s content, I see an opportunity to turn negatives into positives. So often, we see disabilities on television and in films, and they’re used for jokes or for punishment or to somehow make the villain a little more villain-y. The condition in Our Song, ectrodactyly, is used in the latest version of The Witches, starring Anne Hathaway, in hopes of showing how “monstrous” she is. It was insensitive and unkind. When there are millions of people watching, especially children, there’s an opportunity to bring light in and give children with disabilities proper representation instead of more ways to be bullied.
Our Song is a love story to all children.
You mentioned in the video on the site about the effect your friend’s child had on you. What was it about him that not only touched you but made you want to write this?
Yes, my incredible friend Miranda gave birth to Christopher 6 years ago, and he’s one of the many children I get to watch grow up thanks to social media. Somehow, we’re all like Godparents of these social media kids, right? Christopher is just this incredible kid who loves playing and laughing and his family. Miranda and I were talking when Christopher was maybe 2 years old, and she told me about his love for music and immediately, I wanted to create something that he’d be able to one day look at and see himself. Originally, I thought maybe a book. And we didn’t shy away from the conversation about the limits we knew the world would attempt to place on him because of his disability and we knew whatever was created would have to combat that. The world can be so cruel to kids and when there’s more things put on those kids that takes them further away from what society sees as “normal,” the cruelty can go even further. “Why couldn’t he play the piano if that’s what he wants to do? Or anything for that matter,” I asked myself. The seed was planted here.
I’ll never forget getting the illustrations back and sending them to Miranda first. She wrote back, “I showed them to Christopher and he said, ‘that’s me!” WOW! Just wow! Representation matters!
Your previous films have been very poignant and thought-provoking. How did you get from there to writing for Blue’s Clues and other Children’s Shows?
For the last few weeks, I’ve been at Esalen Institute as an artist-in-residence, writing my days away on Blue’s Clues and the many personal projects I’m managing. This place has given me the time and space to breathe and reflect and just be. A month ago, I wouldn’t have been able to answer this question with an answer that made complete sense. But now I can. Everything I’ve ever created and will create is about happiness. My documentaries are heavy – the first, Seeking Asylum, is about racial injustice, the second, Outside the House, is about Black mental health, and the third, Set Yourself on Fire, is about the global rape epidemic. Each of these are about finding a place to heal, about holding space for others, and getting to a place where we can truly be happy. When creating children’s media, it’s about building amazing children and helping to get them to a place where they can be happy.
You wrote a book, The Most Beautiful Thing in The World, about a kid who is losing his sight and his mother taking him on a trip around the world. Where did the inspiration for that come from?
Travel is love. I’ve dreamed of seeing the world since my first memory of a plane at 5-years-old. As an adult, I push for everyone to see as much as possible while they can. I was in Atlanta and there was an exhibit called Dialogue in the Dark. You go into complete darkness with a cane and a guide who’s blind and your goal is to figure out how to navigate these spaces. There was a busy street, a restaurant, a store, and a bedroom. Growing up, I had a friend who was slowly losing his sight. By the time we were 20, it was completely gone, and I always wondered how he handled it so well, thinking I’d absolutely fall apart with that news. When I walked out, the thought immediately jumped into my head, “write about this. Somehow.” Before getting to the car, the entire story formed and I sat in the garage, taking notes in my phone. I wanted to show the beauty of the world, the happiness of a child in spite of what life hands him, and the love of a mother who, like mine, taught her son to take nothing for granted.
Your work; the book, the films, right up to Our Story, seems to tap into various aspects of the human condition and disabilities. Is there a reason why your work focuses here? Is it something you are trying to convey?
It’s wild that I’m only just recently realizing this as a part of my life’s work up to now. I’ve always believed that artists are always confessing something in their work if we take the time to really look. It’s absolutely about happiness and showing all people that they deserve happiness and spaces to utilize and call their own. If there’s anything outside of that, I have no yet found it. But I will.
What is the plan for Our Story? What is your goal for it?
I have to tell this story. Our Song is currently in the funding stage, which is typically, for me at least, the most difficult. It’s convincing others that this story needs to be told when I think it speaks for itself. But I’m here for the work. Ideally, I’d love to raise the $75K quickly and get the wheels spinning even further down the road. I was absolutely inspired by Matthew Cherry’s “Hair Love” and the work put into that. We saw how incredible it was to see the love of a Black father and daughter on screen for what felt like the first time because we so rarely get it. One of the plans for Our Song is the “normalize” Blackness, disabilities, and vulnerability on the screen. This is an ALL HANDS ON DECK mission, and I’m reaching out to anyone who can donate, share, volunteer during production, and everything else. And I wouldn’t turn down a studio that comes in and matches my intentions.
Our Song is a love story to all of us.
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