'Farming' Director's Journey Into A White Supremacist Group As A Nigerian Boy
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
And finally today, a film about one man's journey into and out of a white supremacist gang. But what's truly remarkable is that the man at the center of the story is black, and it's based on true events. The film is called "Farming." It refers to the practice in 1960s England when Nigerian parents paid white, working-class British families to foster their kids. The hope was that the children would have better opportunities in Europe.
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, the writer and director, was one of these children. The film follows a young Enitan as he grows up in a crowded foster home. Facing neglect and emotional abuse there, he joins a skinhead gang led by white supremacists. The story is based on Agbaje's life, so you already know the ending. He left a life of violence and became a lawyer and a celebrated actor with starring roles in TV shows like "Lost" and "Oz."
This is Agbaje's directorial debut, so I asked him why he wanted to tell his own story.
ADEWALE AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: It was important for me to share an experience of a black child growing up in Britain. Many - certainly across the pond in America - have a certain perception of Britain, whether it's the monarchy, the Beatles, James Bond and things like that. But nobody is really aware of the 8 million or so black immigrant population that's resident, who lives there, and also how they came about to be there. And it's a phenomenon that was unknown. And it's a voice for a forgotten generation of foster Nigerian children like myself.
FADEL: You know, it explores a spectrum of racist sentiments, from the subtle to the violently hostile. You know, your foster family, the mother in the film, Ingrid, is played by Kate Beckinsale, who always reminds her kids that they would be in a much - they could be in a much worse place. And she's referring to the children's homeland, Nigeria. And she calls it Woogawoogaland (ph). You know, I think a lot of people from minority communities would recognize this kind of racism. Can you explain what you wanted to highlight with Kate Beckinsale's character?
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: Well, Kate Beckinsale's character - she plays the character of Ingrid, who was my foster mother - is, to a large degree, a product of her environment. And what I wanted to show is the complexities of racism and ignorance. Because the very vernacular of the day, the wallpaper of the day, was very racist, and it was acceptable in society. And so that was obviously projected onto us as children. So even though there may not have been an ill intent to harm...
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: ...The impact on the recipient - i.e., us as the children - was devastating. And in the sense that when you're constantly surrounded with these kind of racial slurs and epithets and names without anybody to empower you or tell you you're black, and you're beautiful, you begin to identify with those.
FADEL: You know, and the main character, Enitan, who's based on you as a young boy, a young teenager, really internalizes that casual racism he hears at home. He loves his foster mom. And then you have the scene where he goes back to Nigeria with his birth parents. And he feels very alienated and doesn't understand this culture of his parents - doesn't feel that he belongs there. He gets sent back to England. What draws him to this skinhead gang? Why does he seek acceptance among a group of people who hate him?
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: Well, the environment in the home was a breeding ground for self-hatred, you know? And then when you're taken to Nigeria suddenly after having been exposed only to that white kind of culture, albeit hostile, that is the home that you know. So the culture shock there was traumatic. And then to return back, there was an obvious difficulty in reconciling the realities in a 9-year-old boy's mind - like, where he belonged.
He was considered a foreigner in Africa. He was considered a foreigner in Britain. He didn't fit anywhere. And yet he wanted to cling to the reality that he knew, which is the hostile, racist reality in England. And so, you know, scrubbing off his skin, trying to fit in, trying to belong, trying to be accepted was what a 9-year-old boy wanted to be.
And I recall as that 9-year-old boy being constantly set upon by these gangs, by the skinheads or local yobs, and coming home crying all the time. And my foster father - he basically put me outside the house and said, this is how it's going to be for you. You go out there and fight them, or I will beat you. And what that meant is a part of me died that day - the child in me - and I had to defend myself against two and three of these bullies and thugs that were racially attacking me. And eventually, that began to give me a reputation for the young boy that was able to take a beating and give one back.
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: And so that brought the attention of the skinheads as a form of amusement. Here was this young kid that was (unintelligible), would keep fighting back. And eventually, I became a useful ally in fighting other rival gangs. I was never considered one of them in the sense that I was never accepted. I was always made aware of who and what I was. So there was this very uneasy and volatile alliance with this racist skinhead group.
FADEL: You know, in this moment, this film is particularly resonant because the U.S. and many European countries are dealing with a resurgence of white nationalism and racial violence. And given your experience with this type of hatred - both self-hatred and hatred on these communities - what advice do you have for people who find themselves under attack and for those who are caught up in the midst of attacking?
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: Well, I mean...
FADEL: It's a big question (laughter).
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: It is. I mean, the thing is, for those that are on the ground and being attacked, you know, it just has to be made clear the type of persecution that's going on because it's life and death for those people that are in it. And those that are in the gangs - I mean, what can I say? I mean, there's no justification for the infliction of abuse or harm on another person because of gender, race or any other difference. But in many cases, these people are very much products of their own environment and victims of it to a degree.
And what, in fact, the irony was - there was more in common with the skinheads than there was differences. You know, we were outsiders. We were from dysfunctional families. And, in fact, that became a glue. And I think what those people have to do - again, it's about demystifying the rhetoric and understand what's really going on.
FADEL: That was Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. He is the writer and director at the new film "Farming." Thank you so much.
AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: You're welcome. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.