Hillside High School graduate Kevin Wilson Jr. didn’t win an Oscar Sunday, but he shone a bright light on his hometown and his high school.
Wilson’s 20-minute film, “My Nephew Emmett,” was one of five finalists in the Live Action Short Film Category. The Oscar went to “A Silent Child,” a British short film about a profoundly deaf 4-year-old girl who lives a silent life until a social worker teaches her how to communicate through sign language.
It was the first nomination for Wilson, a 2007 Hillside graduate, and he got to be a part of all of the pre-Oscar festivities that go with it, including meeting stars like Steven Spielberg, Mary J. Blige and Common.
And in the meantime, he made a lot of people in his hometown proud, who were cheering for him from afar.
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“We’re extremely proud of the work Kevin has done, and he’s represented us extremely well,” said Hillside drama teacher Wendell Tabb, who spent the second half of the 90th Academy Awards in the school’s theater reflecting on his 30-year career and the students who have graced the Hillside stage. “Look for more more great things to come.”
Wilson is an award-winning filmmaker in the prestigious New York University Graduate Film Program and is mentored by filmmaker Spike Lee, a graduate of the film program.
He wrote, produced and directed the film about the infamous night in 1955 when Emmett Till was abducted and murdered just east of Money, Mississippi. The story is told from the perspective of Moses “Mose” Wright, Till’s uncle. Wright was forced at gunpoint to give Till to two white men who came looking for his nephew after Carolyn Bryant accused him of assault and whistling at her when he visited her family’s store that afternoon. Bryant recently admitted to lying about the incident.
Wilson’s fascination with the Till murder, which helped set off what became the modern civil rights movement, began early in his life. He first learned about the gruesome death from watching civil rights, fair housing and women suffrage documentaries with his mother.
His mother and stepfather accompanied him to the awards show in Los Angeles along with Wilson’s wife.
Wilson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and television production at N.C. A&T University, wrote and produced his first play about Till while a student in Greensboro. That set the stage for what would become the Oscar-nominated “My Nephew Emmett.”
Wilson won a student Oscar for the film in 2017.
The film stars Joshua Wright, a 17-year-old junior at Voyager Academy, who was selected for the role of Till after Tabb introduced him to Wilson. Wright said Sunday he it was difficult to get his mind around the fact that he was a part of a film selected for such a prestigious honor.
“Even though it didn’t win, it’s still a blessing to be a part of this experience,” Wright said.
Wright said he has seen “A Silent Child” and thought it was a “powerful” film.
“I’m really happy for the film that won,” Wright said. “I thought it was a really good film with a powerful message.”
Tabb also had good things to say about “A Silent Child” and the other nominees.
“The films that were nominated were all excellent films,” Tabb said. “(Wilson) has to be proud that his film was included in a category with such great films.”
Tabb said Wilson’s Oscar nomination has brought welcome attention to Hillside and its theater program.
“He has introduced Hillside to people who may not have heard of us,” Tabb said. “It’s going to open up doors for a lot of other Hillside students.”
Wilson’s success will also encourage more Hillside drama students to try their hands at writing, directing and producing, Tabb said.
“We’re from a program of strong actors, but Kevin’s nomination will motivate and give our students hope and the confidence that they can also write and direct,” Tabb said.
Nine Hillside drama students will get a chance to spend time with Wilson next month when they travel to Santa Cruz and Los Angeles as part of the International Professional-Student Theatre Exchange Program that allows drama students to interact with and learn from professionals in the U.S. and throughout the world.
Tabb said 2009 Hillside graduate, Lauren E. Banks, an actress currently working on the Showtime series “City on the Hill” will also share her experiences with students during the exchange.