“In This World” is a documentary that chronicles a Durham teen’s transition from adolescence into adulthood. The 15-minute short by Triangle filmmaker Kelly Creedon has been shown at independent film houses and festivals across the United States and will be screened Sunday at the Carrboro Film Festival.
Courvosier Cox, whose life Creedon began chronicling at age 15, has big dreams of being an actor, singer and comedian. He wants to move to L.A. and be represented by the same talent agency that books Kevin Hart, Leslie Jones and Amy Schumer.
But before Cox can achieve West Coast stardom, he will have to make an appearance next month on a different kind of stage: Durham County Superior Court. The outcome there could derail Cox’s dream and alter the trajectory of his life.
In June, Durham detectives arrested him on more than 40 criminal charges related to a series of motor vehicle, business and home break-ins, along with the theft of items worth thousands of dollars.
Creedon envisioned a film that would enable others to understand the challenges faced by African-American boys in the context of a national conversation about racial profiling, mass incarceration and what she described as a “pronounced achievement gap” between young people like Cox and his white peers. And while her film ends with Cox’s dream still before him, it plays now against the understanding that the energetic teen on screen might also be a criminal.
Last month, Durham County District Court Judge Brian C. Wilks dismissed 29 of the misdemeanor possession of stolen goods charges and several felony offenses. Wilks ordered the remaining charges to be tried in Superior Court.
As a first-time offender, Cox, now 17, could be sentenced to a community-based punishment if he’s convicted of the lesser offenses: breaking and entering into a motor vehicle, breaking and entering and possession of stolen goods. An identity theft charge carries a minimum sentence of eight to 10 months in prison, or probation. And the obtaining property by false pretenses charge against him is a Class H felony in this case, with a minimum sentence of nearly four to five years in prison, or probation.
That last charge stems from a car break-in on May 31, when police think Cox broke into a car and stole a purse that contained a credit card and then used it the next day at Macy’s to buy clothing valued at $190. Days later, on June 4, police say Cox broke into a 2004 Honda Accord and stole a backpack that contained a laptop computer, $50 in cash and a Samsung Galaxy 5 mobile phone. Police think it was roughly during the same time period when Cox broke into the offices of Alliance Architecture and stole two bicycles valued at more than $1,100, court records show.
When asked if his client realized the charges against him could lead to prison, Durham attorney Jonathan Wilson would only say, “It’s a tough situation.”
Cox lives with his mother, stepdad and five siblings in a comfortable, two-story west Durham home that was renovated a couple of years ago by volunteers with Habitat for Humanity. He looks more like a middle-schooler than someone who is going to graduate next year. He hangs framed pictures of his parents and siblings on the walls of his neat bedroom. There’s a poster advertising an April screening of “In This World” on one wall with a photo of him posing with a faux fur draped around his shoulders. Sticker art on the wall behind his bed reads “Be The Change You Want To See In The World.” Another proclaims, “May all who enter as guests, leave as friends.”
Cox has written three songs that are in concert with the messages: “Life Journey,” “Time” and “Faith.”
During an interview late last month, he stared out his bedroom window and sang in a sweet, plaintive alto.
“I don’t want to be 60 years old and think the world is cold. I want to have a lot of children to warm me, I wanna be rich, wanna big house on the hill, and give my kids the best and never settle for less.”
The soft-spoken teen has a whimsical sensibility. He enjoys reading monologues and scripts, though none come to mind when asked about his favorites. He likes Tyler Perry and loves Whitney Houston.
It wasn’t being a flamingo. That’s not what captured me. It was not being myself for a second.
“When I hear her voice it makes me want to hit the studio,” he said.
Cox was hooked on entertaining from the time he first performed as a 7-year-old first grader in a class play about eco-systems. He played a flamingo, “dancing, talking and gyrating around” in pink tights.
“It wasn’t being a flamingo. That’s not what captured me,” he said. “It was not being myself for a second.”
He doesn’t have a favorite subject in school, saying, “I just do what I got to do to get out of there. I used to like math, but as I got older my grades didn’t get any higher and I was like, ‘I don’t like any subject.’ ”
He has not attended school much this year but says he wants to earn a general education diploma from Durham Technical Community College because the instructors might be able to give him more “one-on-one help,” which he prefers, along with “small settings.”
His mother, Telisha Cox, declined to talk for this article, but in the film she expressed uncertainty about her son’s dream of being an entertainer.
“His first year or two in middle school, they were good,” she explained to Creedon, the filmmaker. “In the eighth grade, as he was making that transition to high school, it was like, ‘OK, I’m a get wild.’ Fifteen and don’t want to be there. That’s just Voisey. Thinks he can get a career and just not go to school. I tell him that’s not gonna work. He’s saying he’s going to California, but I’m like, ‘Who are you going to California with?’ You know, I don’t want to shoot your dreams down, but I mean, I haven’t told you that you could go anywhere.”
I depend on me
Cox was 14 when he started performing at Pinhook, a nightspot in downtown Durham that features bands and other entertainment.
His first performance on Dec. 4, 2014, was a tribute to Black Lives Matter. He dressed up as Santa Claus, sang Christmas songs and danced. He followed up with another on Valentine’s Day when he dressed as Cupid to sing and dance.
“I was wearing a diaper, no shirt, with a ribbon going around me like a banner,” he said. “It was pink, with polka dots. I was wearing a crazy-looking wig and black dance pants underneath the diaper.”
The next performance was on St. Patrick’s Day when he dressed up as a leprechaun.
Creedon captured the buildup for Cox’s next showcase, an early November performance. In the film, she follows the teen as he hands out fliers in downtown Durham to advertise the event. While passing out fliers, Cox persuaded three people to share the stage with him.
Cox scheduled a rehearsal at a community room at the downtown public library. They agreed to meet. No one showed up.
“I waited there for about an hour. After I waited and waited and waited, I called them and let them know I was going to continue doing it alone,” he said. “I guess they was busy and not fully committed to doing the showcase. I guess I was into doing a showcase with other people, not just for me. I can depend on me.”
That’s a phrase Cox says often. He depends on himself.
“What makes me believe in myself? Nothing,” he said. “I have to believe in myself. No matter what.”
Creedon lives in Durham and is an adjunct member of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Media, where she earned a master’s degree in visual communication. When she speaks at screenings of “In This World,” she tells audiences about the criminal charges Cox is facing and encourages them to keep up with his case, which she is documenting.
Creedon met Cox during his series of performances at the Pinhook after he asked her to help him create a demo tape for auditions in Los Angeles.
“He was a precocious 14-year-old who looked 12,” Creedon said. “He seemed like he was on a journey, and that’s part of the nature of any good story. ...I wanted to see where it would take him.”
She did not count on the subject of her film being accused of a crime spree.
“I don’t believe in detached journalism,” she said. “But ... I’m not his lawyer. I’m not his mother. I’m not a social worker. I’m a journalist.”
But in the void left by the absence of his parents during the court hearing last month, Creedon has performed nearly all of those roles on Cox’s behalf. Wilks, the district court judge, did not allow Creedon to bring her camera equipment inside the courtroom, but she sat with Cox as the judge told his attorney that the misdemeanor charges against his client had to be resolved before the case could be transferred to Superior Court. Creedon explained to Cox what was going on. Outside the courtroom, Cox stood quietly as Creedon adjusted a clip-on microphone she had affixed to his red-plaid shirt. He trusted and relied on her.
“Did you talk with your mom?” Creedon quietly asked while fiddling with the microphone.
“Yeah,” Cox answered. “She said she was taking my transcript over (to Durham Tech).”
Seeking a hero
Creedon filmed Cox’s performance last November at Pinhook. He walks onto the stage wearing a light-blue Polo baseball cap, jeans and a khaki-colored shirt topped off by a cream bowtie with dark polka dots. He stands in front of the microphone and sings “The Greatest Love Of All” to taped musical accompaniment. He was hoping the evening would be the greatest night of his life, with him singing for at least 200 people. But he’s singing out of tune to a dark, near-empty room. He does not appear to realize his vocal delivery is arrhythmic and out of sync with the music.
The scene ends while Cox bravely sings, “everybody’s searching for a hero...”
His next court date hasn’t been scheduled. It may be the first week in December, his lawyer says, or the week after New Year.
Cox doesn’t like to talk about his arrest or upcoming court appearance. “I just have to see what’s going to happen and prepare myself for the outcome, good or bad,” he says.
Instead, he talks about achieving his dream and when he does, the route to success unfolds like a series of scenes he’s rehearsed in his mind. He will leave for Los Angeles on June 20. He’ll stay for 30 days while attending auditions and apply with the Agency for the Performing Arts to land an agent.
He envisions doing enough acting gigs to build up his resume and earn his union card with Screen Actors Guild, “so I can become this big actor.”