Seeking Asylum opens with the vicious attack by ABC agents on Martese Johnson, the University of Virginia honors student who was arrested in April 2015 for alleged public intoxication. “How did this happen?” Martese pleads repeatedly in bloody disbelief as the officers force him to the ground. “How did this happen you f*cking racists?!”
The charges were later dropped. However the damage was done. Martese would require 10 stiches and be scarred for life. The incident also changed the life of Martese’s advisor and accidental filmmaker, Darnell Lamont Walker. The director took time out from his hectic film festival schedule to discuss the current state of the Black man in America and his debut documentary, Seeking Asylum.
EBONY: What inspired this film?
Darnell Lamont Walker: It was April in the states. I had a ticket to backpack through Europe with friends in hopes of making it to Amsterdam for King’s Day, and Freddie Gray had just been killed by police in Baltimore. Being raised not far from Baltimore, and feeling very connected to the situation due to a racially motivated run-in I had with the law several years ago that left me face down with a gun on my head, I strongly reconsidered my trip to stay and march in the streets. My friend, Terrence, who’d just learned of my trip two days before departure, asked, “Why are you going to Europe? To seek asylum?” And that was the beginning.
I just kept thinking about everybody murdered and held at gunpoint and unjustly imprisoned and such. I just kept asking questions while abroad, and got home with a bunch of footage. I had accidentally made a film.
EBONY: What is your background in terms of film?
DLW: I’m a writer overall. Stage, poetry, fiction. I came to L.A. to work in television casting and eventually writing. With film, I’ve helped coordinate one documentary before and was given directing credit, but not near this magnitude. With this film, I’ve directed, produced, edited, scored, funded everything from scratch with little knowledge of it.
EBONY: Why did you decide to open with the images of Martese Johnson?
DLW: I wanted to capture the viewers with powerful imagery and remind them of the climate we’re in before diving into the story. Setting the tone. The first clip is of my advisee, Martese Johnson, at the University of Virginia. It was very close to home.
EBONY: The battle is always close to home and never-ending for the Black man in America. But backpacking through Europe for King’s Day, that’s not what is usually expected of us is it?
DLW: Precisely! King’s Day is the King’s birthday in the Netherlands. It’s a huge party in the entire country, particularly in Amsterdam. It’s like a mix of Mardi Gras and New Years Time Square. On top of it, being an opportunity to get out of America. I’m a traveler, and it was on my bucket list of things to do.
I strongly believe when you leave America, you’re in the rest of the world. I had to go be in the rest of the world and forget some of this craziness for a bit. ’Cause like you said, the battle is never-ending.
In Europe, I had a situation where a cop tapped me on my shoulder to tell me to move before the train hit me. And I realized in that moment that I wasn’t nervous. The cop didn’t make me nervous! As soon as I got back to L.A., a cop pulls up behind me, just driving, and I felt like I have a trunk full of guns and drugs.
Overall, I’m not sure yet if there is a place I’d want to live where I wouldn’t be reminded, but there are places I wouldn’t be nervous around such “authority,” and I know I won’t have to worry as much about getting a call about my son being killed by police.
EBONY: As Americans, we are given the privilege of having the blue passport. Did you feel the power of it, to be able to travel to different countries, and would you be willing to give that up?
DLW: Very much so. It wasn’t something I reached easily though. I’ve made the “if X becomes president, I’m out” jokes, and so forth, but I wasn’t serious then. Even after being held at gunpoint in Daytona Beach for absolutely no reason then watching the police as they changed the narrative, I wasn’t too sure.
But now I’m at a point where if it doesn’t happen, I’m risking my own sanity and safety. It’s a sacrifice. Giving it up wouldn’t stop me from continuing to return to help those who are still here fight, or keep pushing. Paying a few more dollars to travel elsewhere because of a visa is a sacrifice I’m more than willing to make in return for what I’d be getting: my sanity, my son’s safety, inspiring others to explore other means of revolution even, I’d hope.
EBONY: Have you researched this and answered the question, or is it more of a poetic possibility?
DLW: I’ve researched it and headed to SF this weekend to speak with an immigration attorney actually, who reached back to me about my film. She wrote an article not too long ago about the case Black Americans have for asylum. Sadly, no country in Europe is likely to grant asylum to Black Americans because they feel we’re well taken care of here, and there is no real need for alarm. And because they’re mostly allies, they don’t want to send up a red flag to say, “America is a bad place and we’re taking their people.”
EBONY: What do you hope to accomplish with this film?
DLW: The end game has always been to get the conversation started. A conversation around the globe about what’s happening, what revolution looks like in 2016 for those who’ve been fighting, a conversation about safety, quality of life, and more. And it’s been happening so far. I’ve held multiple screenings around the world, two film festivals so far, another in a couple of weeks, and a few panels to discuss if this is truly the way we should be thinking moving forward.
EBONY: The talented tenth in the time of W.E.B. DuBois were considered the upper class, intelligent, financially able Black people who had a voice to challenge the case of Black Americans, while others picked up and left America to live in France. Is this history repeating itself?
DLW: I’m not so sure history repeats itself for us. This has always been our present. The oppression, the inequality, the abuse, etc., we’ve never been without it since being here. What their departure did was open some eyes and get their stories shared for others to see what was really happening. In France, I spoke with folks who consider themselves allies to Black folks because of people like [James] Baldwin who left. I think their leaving definitely helped as long as they continued to speak out. Some left and gave up all of America and never looked back.
EBONY: You accidentally made a doc that is picking up interest on the festival circuit. How would you advise other filmmakers who would like to enjoy your level of impact thus far?
DLW: So far I’ve screened throughout the U.S., Amsterdam, London, Grahamstown, South Africa. The festivals are Pan African Film Festival, L.A. Cinefest, Hollywood Sky Festival and Rapid Lion so far. I’m waiting to hear from 17 others in the coming months.
For other filmmakers, I’d say believe in the film and find where it fits. Get it out there as much and as far as you can. Until two weeks ago, I was my only team because of a lack of resources. I finally brought a publicist along to knock on a few more doors. I feel it’s the timing more than anything. This topic is on the table.
Suede has spent a decade between the Americas, South Africa and Tanzania creating content for print, TV, radio and digital media. His interests include photography, pop culture, social media and travel. Follow him on Twitter @iamsuede.