Cornbread, Earl and Me

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.

3 thoughts on “Cornbread, Earl and Me

  • April 7, 2017 at 7:18 pm
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    Yoo,

    This was a good read, and the name of the movie seems a lot more whimsical than the plot. It is definitely striking and unfortunate that such issues of police brutality against black youth can be relevant so long ago, and even still today in 2017. One aspect of the plot I find interesting though, is that there were two cops involved, and one of them was black. In many cases it is a white cop who is brutal towards a black citizen, but there are such cases where people of color are pulling the trigger too. This leads me to wonder, how great is the impact of implicit racial bias in cops who themselves are minorities?

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  • April 9, 2017 at 6:40 pm
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    In response to Vignesh Gopalan’s ending comments, I would say implicit racial bias are held by minorities and impact minorities in the same way, if not more, than whites. Studies have found that African-Americans believe all blacks are lazy, violent, and nefarious. An article I once read delineating how race negatively impacts African-American customers who are seeking residence in AirBnB’s discussed how white AirBnB hosts usually reject black customers. Even more shocking, this article declared that black hosts also reject offers from African-American clients. Back to your question, Vignesh, it seems that black cops are impacted equally or possibly to a greater extent by implicit racial bias as they live in a world that constantly tells them that ALL blacks are criminals.

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  • April 9, 2017 at 6:48 pm
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    In response to this blog posts, this 1975 movie adaptation epitomizes a George Santayana quote that articulates, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”. Over 40 years later, Cornbread’s death parallels the death of Trayvon Martin because this society we live in refuses to learn from the mistakes of its ancestors. This blog post is so important as it shows how not much progress has been made in the arena of racial equality. This boy, Cornbread, was simply on the streets minding his own business, but was shot dead because these police officers’ implicit biases caused them to think all blacks are the same and all blacks are criminals. This is EXACTLY how Trayvon Martin was killed by the hands of George Zimmerman. A direct comparison is made because like Cornbread, Martin was simply on the streets minding his own damn business when a man killed him because he was a black boy. This society in which we live will continue and continue and continue to repeat the same mistakes, because we forget to learn the history of Emmett Till, of Rodney King, and of Cornbread.

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