A number of years ago, my dad made my sister and I watch a memorable movie from his youth, Cornbread, Earl and Me, a 1975 film adaption of Ronald Fair’s Hog Butcher. I vaguely remember forcing my dad to turn the movie off citing its slow and seemingly directionless start. I was likely resting on the assumption that the old, grainy movie was irrelevant to my time and place. The title, however, stuck with me. I am reminded of “the movie my dad likes” every time I interact with cornbread or the popular 2015 movie Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. My most recent encounter with cornbread prompted me to quickly google search the movie. One sentence of the description, “ . . . Nathaniel is shot dead by police who take him for someone who’s just committed a violent crime,” caused me to reconsider the movie and its timely purpose.
The movie focuses on three young African American boys who live in the inner city. Nathaniel, nicknamed “Cornbread,” is a high school basketball star who has just been offered a scholarship to play in college. His success on the court propels him to a position of fame and an embodiment of hope in his predominantly black neighborhood. Among his most devoted admirers are the younger Wilford Robinson and Earl Carter. One day, Wilford and Earl make a bet on how fast it would take Cornbread to run home. After deciding it would take 25 seconds, Cornbread runs home in the pouring rain with a basketball in one hand and an orange soda in the other. An assault suspect is also in the area and is wearing a hoodie much like the one Cornbread sports. Two police officers, one black and one white, are in pursuit of the suspect but lose him in the rain. They then see Cornbread running and mistake him for the suspect. The officers shoot Cornbread dead in the back, and chaos begins to consume the street. Though Cornbread’s parents hire a lawyer to investigate their son’s unlawful death, the investigation is hampered by an elaborate cover-up set on framing Cornbread as the assailant, coupled with severe police intimidation. A majority of the witnesses are threatened into submission, but Wilford remains unshaken in his search for justice. He testifies, in graphic detail, about what happened that afternoon ultimately inspiring the black police officer to confess that he and his partner had shot and killed the wrong guy.
The movie’s storyline and theme is incredibly relevant in the wake of recent killings of unarmed black males by law enforcement officials. The notion that Cornbread was walking home from the local store eerily parallels the experience of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. While, the fear that encompasses the witnesses and survivors of the violence is reflective of the emotion’s undertaken by young black boys and their loved ones. Wilford, in particular, is consumed by the tragedy he witnessed, and begins to question the police’s role in his own life. He articulates that if it happened to Cornbread it could happen to him – a sentiment shared by many black youths today.
The theme serves to show the extent of police conflict in African American communities, and should have operated as a lesson for the police. I was very wrong in making my dad prematurely end the movie as the 1975 film’s relevance has spanned more than 40 years.