Children’s Media Writer, Darnell Lamont Walker’s Animated Short Wants All Kids to See Themselves
Darnell Lamont Walker hates naps, doesn’t drink enough water — at least publicly — and eats more candy and tacos than should be allowed, and somehow, he’s always a little confused when we connect and I ask how he’s still able to walk, run, breath, and create. I tell him he needs a break. He laughs it off and as he always does, he reminds me of the Lady Gaga interview I haven’t been able to find, but he swears he remembers from 2010 or 2011. “She did 286 shows during a tour year, almost non-stop tour” he says in his usual animated voice, nostrils flaring as the usually do when he’s excited about what he’s saying, “and someone asked her why she was touring so much. She asked ‘who told them they could take a break?’” Darnell promises me he’ll find the interview. He’s been running nonstop for these dreams of his, for the people I’m glad finally found his light, and most recently for the children.
The kids are what brought me to Darnell this time — virtually. I pulled the most comfortable chair from the house onto the back porch of my Luquillo Beach vacation rental so I could stare at the waves and be on the same level of peace as Darnell, who plopped down on a bench in one of the most amazing gardens I’ve seen. He’s spent the last 4 weeks at Esalen Institute as an Artist-in-Residence.
The last time we spoke like this, for the purpose of sharing Darnell with the world, it was just after his last Documentary, Set Yourself on Fire where he restarted a much-needed conversation around the global rape epidemic with a goal of ending rape worldwide. It comes with a trigger warning. Since that conversation, Darnell has gone chin-deep into the children’s media world and those of us who’ve spent more than a few hours with him think his career move is just as fantastical as his spirit.
Now, the activist, author, filmmaker, dreamer, and magic bean buyer is working as hard as he always has on a love story that needs to come to life. Our Song is Darnell Lamont Walker’s first animated short and it’s about the love of a family, specifically between a father and son and that son and his desire to be like dad. The logline: A father’s fear of heartbreak weighs heavily on the dreams of his unbreakable boy.
Darnell sips his coconut water and says, “let’s go.” We go:
Janelle Gray: Darnell, how did you end up in the world of children’s media? Isn’t that a far leap from your documentary life? They were all beautiful, but so heavy. From social justice, Black mental health, and sexual assault and rape to Blue’s Clues & You and other children’s shows. What a leap.
Darnell Lamont Walker: Incredibly, it wasn’t a far leap from that world. A little over a week or two ago, I sat down for an interview at Esalen with a great guy called Sam, to talk about my work and midway through, I had this lightbulb moment. I came to the realization that all the work I’ve ever created is about happiness and healing. All of it. You’ve seen the documentaries and yeah, they’re heavy. Some folks are still working their way through Set Yourself on Fire, watching a few minutes each week. As a poet, playwright, and even as a guy who wrote short notes on the backs of cartoon coasters, it was all always about happiness and healing. Finding it, maintaining it, giving it to others.
So here I am, 7 years after writing my first children’s book, The Most Beautiful Thing in the World, and 3 years after that book turned into the script that landed me in the Sesame Workshop Writers’ Room, the program that truly launched my children’s media career. Yeah, how lucky I am that I get to create this stuff. But all that to say happiness and healing brought me here. And I think it’ll keep me.
We’ve had so many conversations about the projects you want to make. And there are a lot! Why is this the story you want the world to see right now?
This story is about giving kids the space to just be and it’s a really good time to spread that message. It’s about perseverance and it’s about love between a father and son. It’s about family. It’s about a Black boy with a disability not allowing that disability to limit him. Those are all incredible things I feel the world needs to see right now. Because we don’t see it enough and because there can never be too much of it. In the words of hood poet laureate, Andre 3000, “the world needs sun.” So many things are changing in the world, in media, in the lives of future grownups. I want to be a part of that change.
Working exclusively in the kid space for the past three years, I’ve been fortunate to be able to sit and talk with so many children about their plans for the future and dreams and It hurts every time one of them tells me they may not achieve those goals. I ask why each time. Sometimes it’s because someone’s told them they couldn’t do that thing they really want to do, sometimes it’s fear, and sometimes it’s because they’ve never seen anyone who looks like them do it. I regret waiting this long to make this film because I need those kids to have seen it days, weeks, years ago. But here we are. So right now is good for this.
It really is. We both believe everything happens when it’s supposed to happen. What was the inspiration behind Our Song and these beautiful characters?
A cool kid called Christopher inspired this film. Like the boy in Our Song, Christopher was born with ectrodactyly. His mother, Miranda, is extra dope and a good friend and we were catching up, messaging back and forth one day when Christopher was still new to the world — he’s six now — and she told me about his love for music. I told her about my plan to write children’s books for kids who rarely get to see themselves while flipping pages; books that will help them see themselves the way we see them — as dope humans, preparing to do some of the most incredible and impossible things — like being a superhero or playing the piano.
As the idea grew legs, I knew I could tell a fuller story through film. But yeah, it all started with an incredible kid and his mom.
After watching Our Song, what message are you hoping your audience walks away with?
I want the kids who watch Our Song to walk away feeling limitless. I want them to dig up those dreams they had, dust them off, pull them from under the bed and out of the closet, and put as much of themselves into those dreams as possible. I want them to know that some of those things that hold them back can be changed into the things that push and encourage.
For the grownups, I want them to see children, like them, have big dreams that can be easily killed and maybe recognize themselves in the father. So often we do things thinking we’re protecting our children, but the reality is we’re dimming their light just a bit. I want those grownups to walk away thinking of ways to locate that switch in their kid and turn it all the way up. Blind us with it. As the father of a 16-year-old artist, writer, lacrosse player, AV techie, and blerd, I do my best to not build boxes around him. I give him space, I let him explore, discover, pick up and put down as he pleased. I’m here to teach, support, answer questions, and sometimes pay, but never to stifle his genius or whatever that great thing inside him is called.
Representation really matters.
Oh, 100%. As creators of children’s content, we’re in a position to change the way kids see themselves. If we can help them see themselves as capable, as loveable, as beautiful, as incredible, as all-around amazing beings, why wouldn’t we do that? So many people stand on these platforms with thousands, sometimes millions of people watching, and they give them trash. I’ve always believed there’s a high fine one has to pay when using our gifts and our platforms to feed the people, especially children, trash. We’ve been paying. Let’s change that.
But yes! Representation matters because I grew up with cousins and friends who didn’t know they could be those things the white kids became. Where I’m from, we didn’t see Black engineers, writers, psychologists, race car drivers. None of that. They weren’t in the books in the library or the text books or on the TV. I swear, too often I think about what those geniuses I ran and biked and swam with as kids would have become if they knew it was possible. It wasn’t until High School that I saw a Black playwright and screenwriter up close who came from the same town. The little world I knew exploded and I knew more was possible. Yeah, it matters!
Tell me, how can people support this film?
Taking more words from Andre 3000, “the hood needs funds.” I’m using Indiegogo to help raise the $75K needed to make this film. Some folks have been very supportive of this project and I’m forever grateful for them and their belief in this. And sharing is caring! Everyone isn’t able to donate and I understand that. Some have been sharing the link and helping to get the word out and that’s so incredibly helpful, too.