The British-Nigerian filmmaker on his intimate portrait of black masculinity, The Last Tree.
In 2016 Shola Amoo announced himself as a vital new voice in British cinema with his debut feature A Moving Image, about gentrification in Brixton. His follow-up, The Last Tree, is a similarly impassioned and angst-ridden tale of coming-of-age, spread out across several years and three distinct locations: Lincolnshire, South London and Lagos. It follows Femi, as played by Tai Golding and, later on in the film, Sam Adewunmi, a British-Nigerian boy fostered to a white family who embarks on an often emotionally fraught journey of self-discovery against a constantly shifting cultural backdrop.
Drawing from his own experience, as well as that of several of his peers and numerous second-generation immigrants interviewed for the film, Amoo has crafted a sensitive and timely portrait of black British identity and masculinity that feels like a refreshing counterpoint to the gritty urban realism of earlier breakout hits such as Bullet Boy and Kidulthood. We sat down with the writer/director to discuss the personal nature of his work, and the importance of challenging narrow and negative media-perpetuated stereotypes of blackness.
LWLies: The Last Tree looks at the way people are conditioned by their cultural surroundings. Could you talk a little about the significance of space and location in the film?
Location is key to everything I do. What’s really interesting in The Last Tree is how each location leaves an imprint on Femi – each place gives him questions around identity that he has to investigate, and that enables him to eventually grow as the narrative develops. The film is semi-autobiographical; specifically I relate to being in a racially monochromatic space that’s rural and moving to a more culturally mixed inner-city environment, and the dissonance that comes with that. I also spoke to a lot of other people who were fostered to get their testimonies. The narrative that you see if a combination of that with my own experience. Rendering the narrative across three very different landscapes really enabled me to highlight the stark differences in that pursuit of identity.
And you were able to actually film in Lagos.
Yeah, that was really important and we were very lucky to be able to get out there. The scenes in Lincolnshire were shot in a place called ‘the wash’, which is essentially the sea at low-tide, which is why it’s almost surreally flat. So it was interesting to then be able to shoot the final scene on that beach in Lagos, with a literal sea full of water that at the same time feels very open like the fields of Lincolnshire.
There are several recognisable locations in the South London portion of the film, like East Street Market. Is there a personal connection to these places for you?
Oh yeah, East Street Market, Deptford High Street and the Aylesbury Estate in particular were super important. Aylesbury was an interesting one because it’s not an estate known for letting people shoot on it – there’s a long history of estates in South London like Aylesbury and Heygate being demonised in the media, so they’re understandably wary of how they’re portrayed. But I’d worked on the Aylesbury Estate for many years as a community worker and it’s 10 minutes from my house, so they trusted that I wasn’t going to portray it in a negative light. Shooting there was essential to the story and it was vital shooting in an actual flat on the estate as opposed to recreating one elsewhere.
Femi has a complex relationship with his biological mother; he’s much closer to his white foster mother. How does that relate to your own experience?
From my perspective, it’s that distance between first-generation and second- or third-generation immigrants that I’m fascinated in. What I really wanted to understand and show in the film is how difficult a decision it was for that first generation to come over. It didn’t just mean leaving behind everything they knew but often involved moving to an impoverished environment and working multiple jobs to support a family. For a lot of Nigerians who were fostered by white parents, that meant a better quality of life; access to better education. I wanted to show a 360 degree view of that, because it’s a situation which has been misrepresented too often.
That’s been brought into sharper focus recently by events such as the Windrush scandal.
Yeah. As a society we’re finally starting to come to terms with the sacrifice that generation made. I certainly didn’t understand it for a long time growing up. I took me a while to appreciate the full scale of the situation. Making films has been very cathartic in that sense. A Moving Image and The Last Tree have bookended a really important period of my life, not just in terms of my personal relationships but also my relationships to specific places, like South London, from an era that is now bygone. Many areas are disappearing due to gentrification so it was a big deal to show them as they once were.
I wanted to ask you about football. It’s a seemingly small detail in the film, but it feels like a crucial connecting point between the three different locations.
Well, the film obviously deals quite directly with black masculinity, but within that I wanted to explore how football can be a unifying game for people from all walks of life. Particularly as a kid, you can practically play it with anyone and that can be a really vital bonding experience. When Femi moves from Lincolnshire to London it provides him with a moment of almost solace and peace. Everything else is quite frightening and new to him, but having a kickabout with some random kids feels instantly familiar. I also liked the idea of having this non-verbal, purely physical expression of identity in the film. Football allows young men to bond with really talking [laughs].
Speaking of black masculinity, there’s a very tender, intimate moment in the film that challenges our perception of a key character. It’s quite refreshing to see the curtain being pulled back like that.
I refer to it often as the mask of masculinity. Especially at that time, the space for black masculinity was quite narrow in terms of what you could do, who you could be. With the scene you’re referring to, it’s a character who feels like they have to present themselves in a certain way in order to feel like they have any power or authority. The places where that mask is up and where it slips is really the main idea of the film. When you start to pull back the mask, you see people in a more two-dimensional sense – you get to see past this stereotypical image of black masculinity.
I read somewhere that the cast is 90 per cent black, which feels like a revelation in the context of UK cinema.
That was super important to me, and what further compounds that is not only do you have me as a black writer/director, you also have my cinematographer, Stil Williams, my editor, Mdhamiri Á Nkemi, my composer, Segun Akinola. I think that’s rarer still. One of the things I really want people to take away from this film isn’t just the story itself but the way we tell it: the language of the filmmaking.
From when the film is set, how do you think things have changed for young black men in this country today?
It’s that frame of reference, you know, of what is acceptable and what you can be as a young black man. When you compare how things are now compared to when this film is set, I think it’s definitely broadened, but there‘s still the issue of the media’s depiction of blackness which I think needs constant analysis. We’re in this representation age, and I think whoever you are it’s important to try to understand other people’s perspective and to put yourself into another person’s shoes. When I think about my contemporaries in the States, just the symbolic power of Obama is so interesting in terms of giving young black men that frame of reference of what they can be. In the UK I don’t think we’ve found that equivalent yet.
The Last Tree is released 27 September. Read the LWLies review.
Published 25 Sep 2019
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