Finding Humanity in a Child Kidnapper

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

AE: No, I wasn’t able to meet her. We were only privileged to [see] interviews and court documents and things like that.

Whatever you think about what Ms. Pettway did — and it was despicable — she wanted to be a mother. Every day that I came to work, I played a woman who wanted to be a mother to this baby — under perverse circumstances, of course. Her life was geared toward maintaining this falsehood, and she had a couple [of] jobs: maintaining the veneer to her family and the world [that Carlina was her daughter], but the other job was the most relevant for her — being a good mother to this child.

TR: Sherri Shepherd plays Carlina’s birth mother. How did you approach the scene where you two square off during a prison visit?

AE: What Sherri and I tried to do, along with Vondie Curtis-Hall, the film’s director, was imagine what it would be like if there was a conversation between the woman who raised Carlina and the woman who birthed her. Those conversations are difficult even under circumstances [like adoption], so it was a tough but glorious experience.

TR: Since filming The Carlina White Story, you’ve gotten involved with the organization Black and Missing.

AE: I wanted to find out who was doing work surrounding the issues we were touching in the movie. I know that when people of color, particularly African Americans, are victims of abduction [or] kidnapping or [are] runaways, there isn’t the same rallying cry that exists for young white children when they disappear. Black and Missing was founded in 2007 to deal with that [disparity], so I’ve been working with the organization, and I’m telling anyone who’ll listen about the kind of work that they’re doing.

So many families and communities are dealing with situations [like Carlina White’s] and don’t know what to do. One of the things Black and Missing talks about is that when people in our communities go missing, there’s a resistance on our part to cooperate with law enforcement because there’s distrust there. But then we lose because there is no responsibility taken by the community to do something about the missing person.

Hillary Crosley is The Roots New York City bureau chief. Follow her on Twitter.