‘Black Sheep’ Review: Identity isn’t always Black and White

The 27th November 2000 was a normal day, as normal as any other in South London. The day began with little cloud but rained on and off throughout the morning. On the afternoon of the 27th, two ten-year-old boys made their way home from school, separately, but living within a 5-minute drive from one another. One boy made it home. One boy did not.

Despite being a normal day, as normal as any other in South London, the 27th November 2000 was the day ten-year-old Damilola Taylor was killed, stabbed over the silver Puffa jacket he was wearing, and left to die in a stairwell, in what became one of Britain’s most high-profile murder cases.

The boy who left school, and arrived home, clueless to what had gone on a mere five minutes away, except for the blue flashing lights which illuminated the final part of his daily journey, was Cornelius Walker.

A new documentary commissioned by The Guardian; and nominated for Best Short Documentary at the 2019 Oscars explores Cornelius’ journey to find acceptance, which began on that fateful November afternoon after an otherwise normal day.

“She was screaming, crying, on her knees…because that could’ve been us. That could’ve been me.”

The parallels between Cornelius Walker and Damilola Taylor are difficult to ignore. Both ten-year-old boys of Nigerian origin growing up in Peckham, the experiences of the two young people would have been very similar – particularly their experiences of London. Cornelius Walker describes the city as ‘my London. My multicultural London.’ and speaks fondly of his childhood before the 27th November 2000.

But for Cornelius, ‘everything changed the day Damilola Taylor died. Everything.’ Arriving home to his mother ‘screaming, crying, on her knees’, Cornelius watched as Gloria Taylor, Damilola’s mother, gave a statement on the news.

A mere two months later, the Walker family were packing up boxes, selling their family home and moving out of London. The effects of Damilola Taylor’s murder and the similarities between the Walkers and Taylors were too much for Cornelius’ mother to bear, and she prompted the family to move out of the cultural capital to the nearby county of Essex, south-east England.

“I kept it to myself. How could I possibly tell my mum ‘Hey, the area you moved us to? They’re kind of racist.’”

Cornelius speaks of his cultural shock at moving to Essex. At first, it is simply the wide open fields and the farm animals he can see out of the window as the family drive to their new home. However, after being accosted by a schoolboy, and called the N word on his way back from the local shop, Cornelius becomes hyper-aware that he is different from the usual resident of his estate.

“I noticed, they were white. They were all white.” He said.

Almost immediately after moving in, Cornelius encountered the ‘wrong crowd’, young people who targeted him because of the colour of his skin. For the Walker family, it was out of the frying pan of London and into the fire of Essex. On a regular basis, Cornelius was attacked by the gangs that frequented his estate, who physically ambushed him and threw words of abuse.

A particularly poignant scene within the documentary shows the actor who plays the young Cornelius, standing above his own body as he is beaten by the gang. The shot demonstrates Cornelius’ disassociation, his tendency to ‘not feel a thing’ in order to disconnect from the situation of which he speaks.

Compounding the assaults he suffered, Cornelius’ father became angry and disillusioned, sometimes resorting to physical violence.

For Cornelius, it seemed as if there was no escape. So, he adopted a philosophy.

If you can’t beat ‘em. Join ‘em.

‘The only way I’m gonna survive is if I fit in. So I did whatever I needed to do to fit in to a group of people who hated the colour of my skin.’

A black boy attempting to adopt a white identity seems to be a ludicrous notion, but Cornelius felt it to be necessary for his survival. First dressing and speaking like the Essex gang, Cornelius felt his transformation would not be complete until he was ‘truly’ like those who had previously alienated him. Purchasing blue contacts, straightening his hair and bleaching his skin, Cornelius attempted to assimilate wholly into this new community.

“I didn’t even want to be white,” he recounts, in the close-up interview shot, “I just wanted to fit in. And if it meant being like white people? Cool – let’s do it.”

The dramatisation of the scene reaches its peak upon the close-up shot of the young Cornelius, with alien-esque fluorescent blue eyes and ashy-yellow skin, looks at himself in the mirror – a changed boy – now coming to terms with a new identity. One cannot help but feel shocked by the stark change in appearance, but this only serves to further demonstrate the lines which can be crossed when attempting to find community. 

‘I felt guilty. But I felt accepted. A black kid accepted by racists. It felt good.’

Cornelius’ new appearance has him, literally, welcomed into the fold. Participating in anti-social behaviour becomes an initiation into the gang, an activity which blurs the obvious distinctions between himself and his new-found ‘friends’. But the older Cornelius is haunted by this experience. He expresses his guilt and shame at pursuing an identity which he is unable to reconcile with his upbringing.

“It pisses me off because you just don’t treat people like that.” he says, acknowledging the part he had to play, with tears in his eyes, “You just don’t treat people like that.”

A discussion of the troubles of his home life comes to the fore, and is a suitable explanation for the behaviour Cornelius exhibits amongst his new crowd. When his father ‘hurts’, so too does Cornelius, and his pursuit of acts of violence and crime becomes an outlet for his personal pain.

‘I wanted to feel love. So, I made friends with monsters.’

It isn’t difficult to see why Black Sheep has won and been nominated for so many awards. In under thirty minutes, the viewer is hooked, invested totally in the story and rooting for the protagonist. Whilst the narrative of the murder of Damilola Taylor remains fresh within British consciousness, a consideration of the distant, and yet somehow immediately interrelated impacts and consequences of tragedy serves as a pressing reminder of the pockets of racial tension which exist across the UK. In a more pressing manner, Black Sheep reminds the viewer of a struggle to find identity – an issue compounded by external forces, of which Cornelius experiences plenty. The documentary presses the viewer to understand identity. What are its essential components? What is identity all about? Is an understanding and acceptance of identity only available through the counter-posing of this identity to that of others? Is the grass always greener on the other side?

When Cornelius finishes his story and the credits begin to roll, the viewer is left with a deeper grasp of the curvatures of identity – ideas which wholly demonstrate the extent one will go to in order to feel a part of something larger.

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