Finding Humanity in a Child Kidnapper

Aunjanue Ellis, star of a film about Carlina White's abduction, says the black and missing are ignored.

(The Root) — In 1987 a woman named Ann Pettway walked into New York’s Harlem Hospital empty-handed and left with a baby named Carlina White.

After abducting the 3-week-old daughter of Joy White and Carl Tyson, Pettway spent the next 25 years raising the infant, whom she renamed Nejdra “Netty” Nance, as her own in the neighboring state of Connecticut. In 2010 Nance, who was living in Atlanta and raising her own daughter, discovered that Pettway wasn’t her mother when she found an image of herself on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website.

In January 2011 Pettway surrendered to police and was later sentenced to 12 years in prison for kidnapping. Carlina White reunited with her parents, but the relationship has been rocky.

Abducted: The Carlina White Story, a film based on those harrowing events, debuted on the Lifetime network earlier this month and can still be seen in repeat broadcasts. The movie, directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall, stars Aunjanue Ellis as Pettway, Keke Palmer as the title character and Sherri Shepherd as Carlina White’s mother, Joy.

The Mississippi-raised Ellis, who honed her acting chops in films including Ray and The Help, spoke to The Root about working to portray the humanity of Pettway despite her crime that changed the lives of an entire family.

The Root: Why play a character like Ann Pettway?

Aunjanue Ellis: I wasn’t familiar with the story. I started researching only after I got the part. When you have stories based on real events, the best thing that you can do as an actress is be as honest as you can. If you are honest, you won’t fall into the trap of your character being easily identified as a villain.

I tried to play Ms. Pettway in a way that she wouldn’t be codified and people wouldn’t look at her as a villain at all. Hopefully I did that, because when people look at a character as a type, they can dismiss the choices that person made. I don’t want anybody to dismiss Ms. Pettway’s choices.

TR: Did you meet Pettway? Where did you focus to highlight her humanity?