A movie adaptation of Samuel Autman’s essay conjures up childhood demons on the set
I remember the moment well. In the summer of 1977 I was ten years old standing outside playing Nerf football with other neighborhood boys when we heard the “boom” of a door slamming.
We looked up and saw Steve actively resisting his father dragging him out of their house.
Steve, about eight or nine years old, had been caught playing with his mother’s lipstick and makeup. To punish and curb this tendency, his father forced him to walk around our north St. Louis city block wearing a woman’s dress, a turban, high heels and carrying a purse.
“You want to be a f******* girl?” His father screamed. “I’ll make you a f******* girl!”
“I’m sorry daddy, I won’t do it again. Please don’t make me do this,” the child begged.
His pleas were ignored. To underscore who was in charge, his father carried a big belt in his right hand. For about fifteen minutes he paraded his son around our long city block as kids laughed, teased and taunted him. More than a walk of shame, I had never seen anything so cruel. I was among the kids in the crowd. I hung out with Steve when the other boys weren’t around. We used to talk about cheesy TV shows such “Electra Woman and Dyna Girl,” “Wonder Woman” and “The Bionic Woman.”
Just as Steve got home his mother pulled up in the car and started screaming at her husband, “What have you done to my baby?”
They all went into the house. We, the neighborhood kids, stood in silence.
I’ve published this true story as “A Walk Through the Neighborhood,” online and in a print collection. It’s coming in another collection soon. These publications brought tremendous catharsis. Then, one of my former students, now a filmmaker, got interested in making a short film about the incident. The next thing I knew I was preparing to go to Camden, N.J. where the movie called “A Long Walk” was set to be filmed. I was excited at the prospect of seeing my work brought to the screen.
But when I saw the young actor, Darius Darby of Columbia, S.C. who was the same skin tone, height and body build as the real life kid, I was stunned. The director, Chinonye Chukwu, had no way of knowing this. The way he looked in the blue dress and makeup brought the pain of that day. Not only was it back but it was standing before me as the actors replayed the scene over and over and over. In between takes, Darius was laughing and playing with the other kids on the set. The emotions were reinforced when actor Francoise Battiste, playing the father, forcibly dragged the kid down the street for several takes. Immediately afterward actor Da’vine Randolph conjured pain and anger at the father just as it as happened. The demons of that day in 1977 had materialized before me on the set.
Back in my hotel room that night, I felt raw laying on the bed.
For the next two days, I had a cognitive dissonance because the filmmaker had fictionalized aspects to create an emotional impact on this short film. Without giving anything a way, life-altering events ensue. My character comes back as an adult played by actor Colman Domingo of “Lincoln,” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” in deep regret. It’s all so emotional for neighbors, the parents of actors and some crewmembers those last two days, people cried as the cameras rolled.
I didn’t cry though. Having been an eyewitness I could separate fact from fiction. The real events had so scarred me, I wasn’t about to take on fictional pain.
Through the years I’ve told this story over and over of what happened to Steve that day. Listeners almost always expressed dismay. As a young kid who was questioning his own sexuality at the time, I felt powerless to help Steve. His father was a big man. Somehow in my adolescent mind I wondered if I should have intervened. Could I have called the police or the division of family services? In 1977 in our neighborhood, following your son with a belt was called raising your child. I know now the psychic wounds were much deeper.
Within a year of the incident Steve’s family disintegrated. His parents divorced. I lost track of Steve and never saw him again. As we’ve marched toward the short film, I’ve tried to find him, but he has such a common name it would be nearly impossible. Maybe word of the movie will reach him via with the Internet or social media. I hope so.
Seeing writing adapted for film was equally joyful and haunting. One of friends from college pointed out that I am one of a few mortals who knows who played them in the film. That made me smile a little bit.
—photo by edenpictures/Flickr