The heaviness of his art didn’t quite prepare me for how light and go-with-the-wind Darnell Lamont Walker is. The poet, painter, photographer, and filmmaker carries his salad through the bohemian teahouse he calls his office, searching for the loudest speaker belting out Nina Simone’s Little Girl Blue. He sits, sings almost as loud as Miss Simone and offers me a cup of tea and a bite of his salad and cake. Vanilla honey bush rooibos tea with a splash of milk and probably too much sugar washes down the smoked salmon salad and almond pave cake slice Darnell says he’s been craving since returning to his hometown, Charlottesville, Virginia just days ago.
It was in this booth in this teahouse where I learned never to let artists, or maybe just Darnell, choose the opening conversation. We are here to talk art, life, passion, living in exile, and his latest projects and he wants to talk about his latest proof that mermaids are real. When he’d go off the track of our conversation, he’d find his way back, saying, “but let me answer your question before you think I’m crazy.” Wherever the conversations took us and for however long we were there, Darnell would always find his way back, showing the attention to detail I imagine he’d show, being an admirer of his well-crafted written words, his awe-inspiring photography, and the intense, provocative, and incredible films that brought us to this meeting. All these passions have grown tremendously since Darnell first put pen to paper at age six, inspired by Rudy Huxtable’s fairytale on the Cosby Show. Darnell, and now the world, or at least those paying close enough attention, watches as his artistry, a long way from its infancy, evolves into something he admits is “uncontrollable, frightening, and completely fascinating.” With that, the past year and a half have quite possibly been the most intriguing of Darnell’s life: from becoming an “accidental filmmaker,” creating Seeking Asylum, a film exploring Black lives escaping American tyranny; to winning Best Drama in the DC Black Theater Festival with Damn Women, written by him and directed by Terésa Alexander Dowell-Vest; to fleeing the United States for South Africa just hours after it was decided that Trump would take office; “for my own sanity,” Darnell says.
When Darnell released Outside the House, his latest documentary, tackling mental illness in Black households and communities, it was at a time when clarity had returned to him. Though the film came months after the date he’d promised, it was right on time. “When I completed shooting,” Darnell says, “my heart was broken, my mind was running in loops, and I couldn’t even listen to these stories on repeat to edit. Suddenly, I became focused on massive amounts of self care.” Meditation, new music, food, and loving on his friends and family became the new norm. “Africa did it,” he says. “The beauty, the safe spaces I was finding and the ones I was building all did it for me. I could literally see the darkness I felt destroying me in America disappearing.” Darnell’s gift, he discovered long ago, is helping others face the pain then heal. He completed Outside the House from his dining room table around 4:15am on January 4, releasing it to the public hours later, showing he never lost sight of his purpose here.
AB: To keep you from getting too bored with me, we should just dive right on in, right? What is the purpose of life?
DW: Ah man, you’re just gonna start with that? Good thing I know the answer, huh? I have a tattoo on the back of my right arm of the Zen Enso symbol with a compass in the middle to remind me of life’s purpose when I forget. To find an empty space and explore it, build
AB: Is it really that simple, though?
DW: Think about all the empty spaces you’ve entered. What did you do there? If you did nothing, then ignore everything I just told you, but if you used it, things changed; you changed even. Right?
AB: We’ve know each other a while, as friends and professionally, and I see how you truly inspire people. People you don’t know have come to me, telling me how something you’ve said or done has changed their life. How do you feel about that?
DW: I’m still learning to receive. It’s a difficult thing, you know? You feel watched, and then you start feeling like any minute now, someone is going to discover you’re a phony.
AB: Are you a phony?
DW: I don’t think so, but I know it also doesn’t take many people to start a witch-hunt. Each time someone tells me I inspire them, or I’ve done something that’s changed their life, it means the world to me, and I don’t ever want to get used to hearing it. I want it to always sound like the first time.
AB: Do you remember the first time someone said that to you? How you felt? Where you were?
DW: No, not the first time, but I do remember when I was told by one of my mentors that I inspired him, and every time someone said it after that. It was a turning point for me. That line in that Drake’s song where he says, “I’m just as famous as my mentor, but that’s still the boss, don’t get sent for.” It’s real. I spent years looking up to this man, and I still do, and I still go to him when I need advice or just some affirming words, but when he said, “you inspire me,” it let me know I leveled
AB: What are you shaking your head at these days? What’s been pissing you off lately?
DW: Because you know I’m always pissed about something, right?
DW: Man, I wake up and figure it out, really. This morning I was arguing with a guy over what rape is and what it isn’t. Now I’m worried there are tens of thousands of rapists out there who don’t know they’re rapists. So, I’m teaching boys and men how not to be rapists, and advocating for rape victims. Shit, I hate to make this moment so heavy. My bad.
AB: It’s cool. What moments in your life stand out? The most important moments, how do you know them?
DW: Shit, man. Outside of that day in March when I found out I was going to be a father and that day in November when my son was born?
AB: Isn’t that the surface level shit you once told me you wanted to avoid? I know you love your son, and he’s probably the most important thing to you, but I mean, let’s get deep.
DW: You listen. (Insert laugh here). That’s heavy, man. Give me a second.
AB: We can move on and come back.
DW: No. It’s always the struggle. Always those moments when I’m completely uncomfortable; those moments when I think I’m going to die. It’s those moments that get remembered. When I’m standing barefoot at a European border because the bus left me with no shoes or jacket in the beginning of winter and my phone is 3% from dying. Whatever that greater being is that’s out there, he or she or it shows up.
AB: Are you saying God shows up in those moments?
DW: If that’s God, yes. Whatever you need it to be. Maybe it’s just me showing up for me. I don’t know. But whatever that is, shows up in those moments. I’ve never seen it come in the happiness, in the content, in the satisfied. It’s always when I’m laying in the middle of a park after midnight on a thin blanket on
AB: Is this one life enough?
DW: Who told you I was only getting one? Shit, this might be my last, but it’s definitely not the only one. But for real, if you do it properly, one is enough. But I hope I have more left.
AB: You speak often about connecting and connections with people. Is that a part of what drives you?
DW: It’s the biggest thing that drives me. Being able to connect with people is one of the most powerful things I’ve experiences. My friends are my friends because we connect on inexplicable levels. I’ve deeply connected with every one I’ve ever loved and every place I’ve ever stayed longer than three days. I can’t possibly function in a disconnection, and have no desire to do so. I see the disgust on the face of those who do it. It’s not for me.
AB: What connects us?
DW: See, this is why I beg folks to be transparent. If we were all transparent, you’d know that answer. Our pain connects us. Our reasons to laugh and smile and desires to be happy connect us. Imagine if we shared those things, if we spoke openly about why we’re hurting, we’d connect on levels unimaginable. Imagine that!
AB: Imagine. You call yourself an accidental filmmaker. You’ve been a part of the Hollywood machine for sometime. Is it really an accident?
DW: Ah man. The Hollywood machine can be heartbreaking. I used to tell my friends how jealous I was of them because the only things they had to shovel was snow. I had to shovel the hopes and dreams of those thousands who packed their cars and journeyed west like it was the Oregon Trail all over again. I’ve been lucky, though. There was nothing to my success there but luck after a lot of hard work. But even after the small achievement and the thousands of meetings people set up to feel important, I didn’t think I’d make it as a filmmaker. It was Seeking Asylum, a film that wasn’t supposed to be a film, that made them call me a filmmaker.
AB: And how did you feel with that title?
DW: I felt the pressure was now there to keep the momentum going; to keep creating with this new title. Again, I had to learn to accept it. I still haven’t fully accepted the title of photographer, but I’m working on that.
AB: You’ve created two films, both of which have been screened worldwide, receive endless applause, and speak to the very important issues, leaving audiences speechless and ready to put in work. You are certainly a filmmaker.
DW: Thank you.
AB: Is that why you are in South Africa in this self-imposed exile? For the art?
DW: I’m in South Africa because I fear America is not willing to protect me. My mission is to stay alive for more children, more love, more food, and those chances are slim in America for a Black man who can’t keep quiet, according to the powers that be. But the muses are definitely in Africa.
AB: Who’s responsible for the Darnell Lamont Walker the world is just sitting down to listen to and read and watch?
DW: There’s a village, man. A collective of folks, friends, grandparents, professors, siblings, lovers, and my mama, Doreen Wells. There are tons of people who will always go where I go because I need them there. I have cheerleaders, and I’m a cheerleader for them. We all boost each other. We all hug each other. In the words of Poet Laureate, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, “nobody will fall ‘cause everyone will be each others crutches.” Words to live by.
AB: Years ago, when we first sat down, you told me your biggest goal was to one day be quoted by the masses. Since then, I’ve seen your name in books between Jodi Picoult and Jack Kerouac. I’ve ssat in presentations in which your name was spread across a PowerPoint. You’ve made it.
DW: So what next?
AB: No. Give me a quote that isn’t yours that you carry with you?
DW: “The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” That’s Kurt Vonnegut.
AB: So what’s next?
DW: Another salad, another pot of rooibos, and a different slice of cake. You hungry?