It’s early September 2019. The store clerk just outside Amsterdam Centraal Station watches me blow a gust of warm breath into my palms and tells me the best parts of summer left one week ago.
The city welcomes me, as it had on my last six visits, with a cool breeze and light rain and I thank myself tremendously for deciding to bring nothing more than a hoodie and my small backpack filled with only a few clothes, knowing I’d spend most of the trip in search of a man who had no idea I was coming to see him…
It was April 2015. Before film festival attendees called me a filmmaker, I was a black American backpacking through Europe with four friends, angry at my own country, in particular, the Baltimore police and justice department for accepting the idea that Freddie Gray was murdered by his own blackness, not the six officers who broke him.
Artists—at least the artists I respect—must speak to the time. I was an artist using his cell phone camera, asking anyone open to speaking with me how they felt about American terrorism and black people seeking safer lands. Feeling completely lifted after an hour-long visit to The African Black Star, one of Central Amsterdam’s infamous coffee shops, we made our way down Rozengracht to visit the house once occupied by Otto, Edith, Margot, and Anne Frank. Before we could cross the canal, James “JJ” Jones, in an electric wheelchair and with a nondescript American accent, asked if I had a few euros to spare. In return and on camera, he shared with me how he ended up in Amsterdam following his tour in Vietnam.
“From Vietnam, I went directly to West Philadelphia,” he said, his voice vividly recalling that day. “Every other house was burnt down, a crack house, and everything else, and I got tired of it. And you gotta keep coming out the house, ducking and dodging. So I said ‘hey, I know where I’m gonna go,’ so I came back here.” For JJ, Amsterdam, under any conditions, was better than America at its finest hour. I thought to myself—perhaps because of the white widow we’d just smoked—how perfect it was for the universe to bring to me this man at this time. Just as I was asking the universe to allow me to return the favor, JJ asked if, through this project, I could help find his sister and niece. From what he knew, they were the last of his relatives and he hadn’t heard word from them in three decades. Sanura, my travel partner, saw the importance of this mission just as I did. We knew it had to happen.
From Amsterdam, Sanura and I made our way to Paris and then back to London where everyone left me to venture solo. I conducted more interviews and shot more footage, including a protest in Brixton against the Baltimore police in honor of Freddie Gray. I wondered how I was so lucky to keep stumbling upon the things that somehow pushed me further and further toward turning this thing I was doing into a film. Would all this footage make a story worth telling? After a few days, I flew home to Los Angeles and got to work.
As an artist, I’ve held firm to the belief that we’re supposed to move when the people say move. We have to accept every challenge that grabs hold of our hearts. I couldn’t shake JJ and his family from my thoughts. At best, we’d find his sister and niece happily living in Philadelphia, excited at the news that the man they’ve wondered about for 30 years was still alive, and they’d be ready to jump on the first thing with wings to see him. I didn’t want to think too hard about what the worst would mean. Sanura and I got to work, and I enlisted the help of my friend Tomika, who lived in Philadelphia at the time.
We searched every free site and social media platform we could for Monica B. (full name withheld), emailing and calling no less than 50 people, crossing our fingers for a hit. For five months, I chipped away at the film, learning how to score, fundraise, market, and everything else I couldn’t afford to pay others to do. For five months, I checked every inbox, hoping to hear something from Monica, even if it was the wrong Monica. One day in November 2015, the film was complete.
Over the following year, Seeking Asylum quickly went out to screen at festivals around the world, including the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, Rapid Lion Film Festival in Johannesburg, and the Virginia Film Festival, pulling me into political and social justice arenas I was already very familiar with, having done my time in the streets of Ferguson, Mo.; Detroit; New York; Jena, La.; Los Angeles; and growing up in Charlottesville, Va. With each screening came very receptive audiences, all with the same question: “Did you ever find JJ’s family?” “Not yet,” I’d tell them.
Then it came. On Dec. 17, 235 days after meeting JJ—I received a message from Monica that included a photo of JJ as a young soldier, and a phone number to call. We talked and laughed, but the mood changed when Monica told me she was the last living relative that JJ knew.
Her mother, JJ’s sister, had been dead a few years. Monica said she missed her uncle and hadn’t seen him since his mother died and he returned home briefly for the funeral. “Can you find him again?” she asked. “Surely,” I thought. JJ lied to me. When he asked me to find his family, I asked him how I’d find him to let him know I succeeded. He told me, “Just ask for JJ, alright. In Amsterdam, they know me, man. Even the police. Everybody know me, man.”
After finding Monica, I returned to Amsterdam five times in four years with no luck. I asked the police, I posted photos, I emailed shelters, I asked random passersby, and nothing. I now found myself thinking the worst, but kept trying. I could now tell audiences that we’ve been successful in finding the family that remains, but I also had to tell them I could no longer find JJ. I kept trying.
The people called me a filmmaker. The art I created before creating film never quite pulled me into arenas I wasn’t prepared to enter, but filmmaking has. Documentary filmmaking tossed responsibilities my way, and I was too chickenshit to say no. I kept in touch with Monica and together, with the help of the thousands of people now invested in the JJ story, we raised enough money to keep looking. I walked the streets, running toward every electric chair I’d see speeding through the city center, hoping. Nothing.
My thoughts grew dark, and I assumed the worst but held on to a small bit of hope. I’d search whenever I made my way back to Amsterdam, but I’d no longer go out of my way.
It’s September 2018, 1,230 days since meeting JJ, one year before blowing warm gusts of breaths into my hand, 134 days since my last attempt at finding him, and I get the following message as I’m about to take off for Los Angeles:
“My name is Thomas. My brother and I have been looking for our father and we believe you have helped us find him. We just finished watching your video Seeking Asylum.” He stated his father’s name was JJ. “We know him as James Jones. We were separated from him at a very young age and would like very much to reconnect with him. He was living in Amsterdam when the video was recorded. Is there anything you can do to assist us with locating him?” He mentioned a niece named Monica B. “My brother has spoken to her and I have attempted to contact her. Should you be able to locate him once again please let us know how we can locate him.” Thomas is JJ’s oldest son.
Before wheels left the ground, I responded, letting him know I was still searching and would continue to search as hard as I possibly could. I couldn’t say no.
Between meeting JJ and talking with his sons, I made two more films—Outside the House, a documentary about black mental health, and Set Yourself on Fire, a documentary about the global rape epidemic. Each film was created because I needed people to know they weren’t alone in this world or in their struggles. Shouldn’t art do that? Talking with JJ’s sons caused me to pull out the old sneakers, stretch my fingers and legs and get back to the search. JJ deserved to not feel alone and to find those he’d lost.
We all picked up the pace. The film began slowing on the festival circuit after a couple of years, and fewer institutions were requesting it, but the people who were able to see it found their way into my inbox, asking, “What’s the word on JJ?” I’d smile each time, responding, “Almost there. Wish us luck.”
And maybe it was that wished upon luck that found him. In July 2019, I was sitting in an all-you-can-eat crab spot in Miami, knuckle-deep in dipping butter when Andre, JJ’s youngest, sent a text:
“Darnell, after almost two years, I finally booked a trip to Amsterdam in an attempt to find my father, James Jones… Well, today I FOUND HIM…We embraced for a long time and spent the afternoon together. Thank you for being part of my journey. If it wasn’t for you, my success wouldn’t have happened. He lives in Amsterdam just on the outskirts of the city. I flew in Sunday and took a couple of days to look for him, based on your video. Found several places where he was, but no luck. I continued today by stopping at the police department, who gave me a good address. It took me 45 minutes to walk to his house. It seemed like forever. All these emotions going through my head. I knocked at the door and introduced myself. We hugged for a long time. Very touching. We are planning a day tomorrow together. I will send photos. THANK YOU AGAIN.”
Knuckle-deep in butter, I cried. What a journey it was. Somewhere along the way, I couldn’t remember why I was doing it except to say I saw it through, but suddenly, I remembered. It was for happiness and love, wasn’t it? To not be lonely, and to say “I love you.” I did it because JJ asked me to, and because I believe everyone deserves as much humanity as we can muster. I was being human when I accepted his call to move.
It’s early September 2019, and from Amsterdam Centraal Station, I walk to the 22 Bus, hands warming in my hoodie pocket, bag on my back, and my heart thumping like a drum enveloped in cotton, unsure of what I’ll say when I reach his door. Via Andre, JJ told me to come see him whenever I returned to Amsterdam. I had no plans of returning until spring, but with the beautiful news, I knew it had to be sooner.
I arrive at Oud-West, just outside of Centrum, walk a few blocks, taking in the smell of curries and shwarmas, and sit on the curb for 25 minutes, wondering why I haven’t thought of anything to ask, say, or bring. I wonder if I should leave and return the following day with a plan. I stand and ring the buzzer.
The voice of a man fresh out of sleep grunts through the speaker, “Yeah?” “JJ, I’ve been looking for you for almost five years,” I say, smiling. The door opens, and we must shake hands for 10 minutes, then hold on for 10 minutes more, knowing what it took to bring us to this moment. For hours, we sit in JJ’s flat, laughing and sharing histories. He fills me in on the last 51 years of his life and I talk about my last two, and there isn’t a dull moment to be found.
“I gave up hope, man,” JJ says. “I just thought I would never see my sons again. I thought I’d think about it until I died, man. But you did a solid thing. When he showed up at my door, that really made my life. I swear I can’t thank you enough. Now they know where I am and I know where they are. That’s powerful.” I have nothing to offer in response except the look of pure gratitude.
We step out and journey through the neighborhood, me on foot and JJ in his chair. It’s during this trek that I discover JJ didn’t quite lie to me; the people know him. Everyone we pass calls him out by name, and he calls them back. Perhaps I was asking the wrong people.
We fill each other with good times and happiness, even when solemnly reminiscing about life and lost loves. Jetlag is coming fast, and it’s time for me to make my journey to Rotterdam, where I’ll steal a pillow and blanket from a friend. JJ grabs my hand with dampening eyes, sighs, and says, “I want to say again, man, thank you very much for coming. Believe me, if it wasn’t for you, this shit would have never happened.”
I walk to the bus stop, smiling, thinking about the power of art.
A writer, filmmaker, and explorer, Darnell Lamont Walker hitches himself around the globe, collecting stories, friends, and recipes to share. He is a native of Charlottesville, Virginia, currently living between the US and South Africa, developing children’s media content, producing documentaries, and attempting to be a screenwriter.