Films don’t get much more personal than Farming. Writer/director Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje puts his own story under the lights and gaze of the camera, let alone that of cinema audiences, to tackle a huge issue which is just as relevant today as it was when the story took place. How much of what we see on the screen has its basis in fact we never fully know, but such its immediacy, its harrowing nature, that it screams that most of it must be.
As a piece of modern history, it’s also an eye opener. In the 60s, Nigerians “farmed out” their children to white English families for a variety of reasons, usually because they wanted to get an education for themselves so that they could offer a better life to their children and return to Nigeria where their new found skills would be put to good use. In the case of the film, Enitan’s (Damson Idris) parents are training to be lawyers and he’s fostered by a chaotic English couple, who ultimately take in his little sisters as well. He doesn’t adapt well to his new situation, retiring into his own imagination and retreating behind the sofa.
Inevitably, he’s conspicuous in the community and especially at school where he’s bullied because of the colour of his skin. He desperately wants to be white – cue a deeply upsetting scene where he first of all scrubs himself with a nail brush and then smothers himself in talcum powder, all in an effort to be the same colour as everybody elese. He doesn’t belong anywhere and feels it acutely. That translates into pure anger, one that’s directed at anybody and everybody, his foster mother included and, perhaps most ironically, his teacher, who is of mixed race and who he calls publicly a “black bastard”. His efforts to find a place where he is accepted even more ironically lead him to a gang of skinheads, and for whom he becomes something of a mascot. Yet he buys into everything they stand for …..
His involvement with that gang occupies a large chunk of the second half of the film, and includes some savage, compelling and distressing scenes. They’re not all about the violence – although there’s plenty of that – but emotional pain, especially for Enitan, as he desperately tries to find that longed-for place for himself. Yet it’s the part of the film that cries out for sharper editing: by way of contrast, the first half is a more arresting story, which includes a visit to Nigeria where the boy is exposed to his indigenous culture and is so traumatised he doesn’t speak for six months. But find a place he does and, inevitably, does it the hard way because of his constant internal conflict and the strength of the indoctrination at the hands of the skinheads. Disappointingly, this isn’t given the time it deserves, taking place in a matter of moments, right at the end of the film and leaving the audience feeling short changed. That part of his life is just as important and, for all we know, just as agonising but in a different way. But it’s never shown.
There is, of course, an irony in him finding a place – or so he thinks – in a group that overtly hates his colour and culture. There are parallels of a sort with Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman, despite the rationale behind the two films being completely different, and they have one large thing in common. Anger. Farming, however, concentrates much more on the attitudes of the time rather than today, giving a powerful evocation of the period and leaving the audience to decide how much of what they’ve seen applies to contemporary Britain. That anger is aimed at a different target, a different era and loses some of its impact. A more direct approach would have made a world of difference.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Drama, True Life | UK, 11 October 2019 | Lionsgate | Dir. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje | Damson Idris, Kate Beckinsale, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Cosmo Jarvis, Jaime Winstone.