May '00 : Cornbread, Earl and Me
Does Life Imitate Art?

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by Nasser Metcalfe
Perhaps one of the most compelling things about current child actor sensation Haley Joel Osment, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar this year for his turn in The Sixth Sense, is the prospect of witnessing a prodigy in the making. With all due respect to Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, the last time a child actor made such a brilliant debut in a major motion picture was in 1974 when 12 year old Laurence Fishburne III starred inCornbread, Earl, and Me. With the Police brutality issue being thrust into the national spotlight once again, and the recent acquittal of the four New York City Police officers who gunned down unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, this film is still quite pertinent today. Former Laker star Jamal Wilkes portrays Cornbread, a promising young basketball prospect from the neighborhood, who is tragically yet mistakenly gunned down by two police officers in pursuit of a suspect just two weeks prior to his leaving for College. Fishburne portrays Wilford Robinson, Cornbread’s neighbor, #1 fan, confidant, and little brother in the true extended family tradition of the Black community. Wilford idolizes Cornbread. His boyish enthusiasm is at an all time high when he speaks to or of the hardwood hero. In return, Cornbread looks out for the youngster and appreciates his adoration. The two enjoy a beautiful friendship. In a compelling twist of irony it is Wilford’s worship factor that leads to tragedy. When Wilford bets his young cousin, Earl, that Cornbread is fast enough to run home through a heavy rain in 25 seconds, the unthinkable happens. Two police officers in hot pursuit mistake Cornbread for their fleeing culprit and shoot him when they thought his soda pop bottle was a gun. The community is outraged, Wilford is devastated, and the officers are put on trial. I can’t help but wonder if in his short life, Amadou Diallo ever had occasion to watch this film. It is eerie to ponder the prophetic parallels between art imitating life and vice versa. To add insult to injury in the film, the police department uses intimidation tactics on eye-witnesses to bury the truth in an effort to protect the officers. The trial is where the real drama unfolds as everyone is forced to search their conscious and reveal their true colors, providing moments of sheer heartbreak as well as inspiring courage. Cornbread, Earl and Me

Now more than ever this film stands as a classic, as the world tries to make sense of the Diallo tragedy. By now we all know how stellar Laurence Fishburne’s career turned out to be. It is fascinating to watch him as a child display the same range and ability that has catapulted him to his current status as a mature actor. I guess some people are just born with it. This film will give you a unique perspective on the life journey of a brilliant actor who was no less than a child prodigy. As Spike Lee often points out, it is all about building a body of work. Laurence Fishburne could not have taken a better first step. It must not be over looked that he was surrounded by an elite class of acting legends on this project. The rest of the ensemble cast includes Rosalind Cash, Bernie Casey, Moses Gunn, and Madge Sinclair among others. For his part as Cornbread, Jamal Wilkes reinforces the notion of the athlete/actor rarely displaying the same prowess on screen as they do in sport, however, he does come across as sincere and therefore likable. Cornbread, Earl, and Mewas adapted from the book, “Hog Butcher,” by Ronald L. Fair. It was written for the screen by Leonard Lamensdorf and directed by Joe Manduke. Jazz legend Donald Byrd provided the original soundtrack. All of the elements combine to make for one powerful film that you will never forget.


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