A science whiz, a professional ballet dancer, a born storyteller, a basketball star, and four others talk about their lives and their hopes for the future
by Cassie Walker
Terrence Thompson didn’t understand why.
Neither did any of the other students in his class. But they did it automatically. They sat together by skin color. “The black kids sat together. The white kids sat together. There were two Asians—they sat together! We didn’t know why; we even discussed it. But we didn’t move,” he says. That one class his sophomore year at Whitney Young High School stuck in his mind, so the following summer, when he started to write his first screenplay, Thompson decided to explore the idea of teenagers and race. “When you notice that something is wrong and you don’t make a change, that idea is interesting,” says Thompson, who worked on the project through Digital Youth Network, a not-for-profit funded by a MacArthur grant that trains teens in film and video production.
The result is Division 201, a fictional portrait of a homeroom where racial tensions are high and adults are oblivious. “Most films about race and kids, there’s usually an adult motivator who gives advice,” Thompson says. “But I wanted to tell the teenage view and make it truthful.” It’s a thinking person’s movie, the kind that Thompson would like to continue to make. But, of late, he’s been ratcheting up his experience level by working in the action genre. Hired by his cousin Reginald Baker, a filmmaker in Los Angeles, Thompson flew to California last summer to work as a cameraman on The Assassin X: Origin, a gritty movie about an ex-marine who becomes a rogue gunman for hire. Thompson is fresh off a trip to Cannes, where the film was being shopped, when he sits down and walks a reporter through the trailer: “It’s gory—but it’s thought provoking,” he says. Thompson appears briefly in the film as a gun-toting thug. “Wait, wait, let me rewind,” he cries, then points to himself. “There I am!”
In real life, Thompson sees no glamour in thuggery. “Violence is the biggest issue facing teens in Chicago,” he says. “You always have to worry about your friends.” He’s relieved that he finally has a car so he doesn’t have to walk home at night. When he’s not working on movies, he helps teach digital storytelling to youngsters through Digital Youth Network. He’s biding his time, he says, until he graduates from high school and heads west. “Hopefully, this will get me to Hollywood.”
Photograph by Ryan Robinson