Oz fans may remember Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the vicious convict Simon Adebisi, but the British-Nigerian actor was also featured in the hit series Lost as Mr. Eko, the reboot of horror classic, The Thing and HBO’s upcoming American spy series Hunted. While Akinnuoye-Agbaje builds an impressive rep for his onscreen talent, it’s his role behind the camera that may be the most intriguing of all.
Farming is the title of the film project that chronicles Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s complex upbringing: A journey in which a confused, adandoned Black Brit who once was skinhead, attained a law degree, became a successful actor and learned to embrace his identity. The term farming refers to a practice common in 1960’s-70’s Britain, particularly among foreign students such as Adewale’s. At 6 weeks of age, the actor’s Nigerian parents put him (and eventually his 2 sisters) under the foster care of a working class white couple in the UK dockside town of Tilbury, while they continued their studies in London. The Andrew Anthony of The Guardian reported:
“At times his foster parents had 10 or more African children living with them, including Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s two sisters. ‘It was a strange relationship,’ he recalls of his feelings for his foster parents. ‘It was one of love because that’s all that I knew, and that’s what love is: you accept people for what they are. If I’m honest, it was very tough. My father was a lorry driver, very rarely at home. The house was run by my mother, and because there were 10 or so kids, there was no time for individual attention. It was about survival. It was about where the next meal was coming from. We had to go out and nick things to get it. So there wasn’t any love in the sense of hugs or anything like that: there was just no room for it. The only haven I had was sleeping behind the sofa in the corner of the room – that was where I could get some kind of peace.’”
Described as an insular town, Adewale was always under the threat of attack from the kids in Tilbury. He told the Guardian that the “violent fear of blacks” was nurtured by their parents, and eventually instilled within him. Akinnuoye-Agbaje described his reaction to seeing the occasional black sailors that made their way to the docks of Tilbury:
“I just remember being petrified,” he says. “It was as if they were the bogey man to us. Fish and chips and corned beef, that’s what I knew. Do you know what I mean?”
Upon his 8th year of life, the parents that he never new decided to relocate their family to Nigeria – without so much as a warning. Naturally, this sent Adewale into a tailspin, “It felt like a kidnap, and it rendered me mute for about nine months. I couldn’t speak the language, and if I spoke English I was abused for it. It was quite a culture shock: brutal. I was so traumatized and afraid that I stopped speaking and my [birth] parents thought there was something wrong with me, thought I was possessed. They tried various indigenous ways to deal with it, and when they didn’t work they sent me home, back to Tilbury, but kept my sisters there.”
His return to Tilbury was met with as much venom as ever. The darker hue he developed in Nigeria drew even more ire from the racist community. He found himself at home in an hostile environment once again, with foster parents who he himself claims were simply oblivious when it came to racism:
“There was a lot of ignorance in the family… I don’t think they were racist; they were ignorant. They didn’t know that we had to put cream on our skin because the skin is for warmer climates and it turns ashy in the cold. They didn’t know they had to put cream in our hair. They didn’t know we had a different smell from Caucasians and we were persecuted because of it. They were just raising us as they would a white kid, but there were differences, marked differences, and I learned about that as I started to grow up.”
The ambivalence brought on by his troubled life in Tilbury and traumatic experiences with his estranged family in Nigeria proved to be too much to bear. Adewale eventually succumbed to internalized racism and became a skinhead. “I was like a little dog that followed them around,” he reflected. The Nigerian teen adopted the neo-Nazi look-and-feel, as well as the accompanying beliefs.
“When a child wants to be accepted, he’ll do anything. And if it means you’re getting a certain amount of notoriety from a fight, that’s what you’ll do. If all you’ve known is racism, abuse and persecution, then all of a sudden you’re getting some recognition, that’s your new drug. That’s what you want. By the time I was 16 I was someone to reckon with. I was so eager to repudiate any connection with any immigrant race I would go above and beyond. I was desperate to belong to something. That was my drive as a teenager.”
His foster mom, overwhelmed by Adewale’s violent thugging, led her to reach out to his birth parents who came to his aid – and just in time. His father, who became a successful attorney in Nigeria, was able to send his son to a boarding school in the UK town of Surrey where after an extremely rough adjustment period, he eventually succeeded, and earned a law degree from King’s College, London.
It’s only a matter of time before the nuances of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s tumultuous life story gets the big screen treatment. He’s already received an Annenberg Film Fellowship grant and is developing the script through Sundance Labs. Farming, the biopic that’s been a lifetime in the making, will no doubt make for a fascinating, troubling and inspirational viewing experience, may begin production towards the end of 2012.