by Dayo Laniyan
It’s a rare phenomenon in the media industry not only to be black, but also to be female and firmly set in the captain’s seat, whether as the director of a film or the writer for a film production. This is why it was such a rare pleasure to meet two black women, who came together against all odds to bring the film Gone Too Far to the big screen- writer of the screenplay and the original theatre play Bola Agbaje, and rising film director Destiny Ekaragha.
Set in South London, Gone Too Far is a hilarious take on race and identity- an issue not very far from the minds of many Afro-Brits nowadays. The film follows the tale of Yemi as he is reunited with his elder brother Ikudayisi, who’s just been reunited with the family after spending years in living in Lagos. Cue in classic culture clashes as Ikudayisi gradually absorbs life in London.
I had the chance to talk to the brain behind the whole story: Bola Agbaje, writer of the original theatre play of Gone Too Far, first shown in 2007. Based on her own experiences of growing up in Peckham, the play did very well, picking up an Olivier Award and helped launch the careers of several black actors, including Zawe Ashton and Bunmi Mojekwu. But more than that, it was one of the few attempts made to address several issues that were easily overlooked, an example being racism not from without, but within the black community. I wasn’t kidding when I said that it reminded me a lot of films like Kidulthood and Bullet Boy.
However, Gone Too Far is cut from a different cloth: Although it still has those issues present, it’s a comedy, not as serious as the others. So I asked Bola, who wrote the original theatre and film script, what her reasons were for the change- Simple entertainment value? A more subtle method of addressing the issues? Or is that they have all been done already? She said it was all of the above for these reasons.
“I grew up in a large family, so there were loads of people and we had a revolving door policy where we were always in our living room watching films and TV and having running commentaries, so I grew up watching TV, never ever silently. Someone is always making a reference or some sort of joke towards something, so my experience of film is that kind of kneejerk reaction to it and subconsciously I only have to think about it afterwards.
“A lot of people have asked me ‘How come I write serious things with comedy?’ And my answer is because it was the environment I lived in. As a Nigerian, we make jokes out of everything, which makes us the happiest people in the world. Everything we think about is funny to us: even with the most serious subjects, there is someone somewhere making a joke about it and that was my experience growing up. Also it softens the blow for discussions, because no one wants someone preaching to them. The good thing about comedy is that you can laugh at something that offends you, but you go away for a minute and wonder, ‘Why am I laughing? This shouldn’t be funny, let’s discuss it.’
Also, the reason for the shift between the play and the film is because at the time of the play I wanted to address the issue of knife crime because of all of the articles at the time, about Peckham and kids with guns, knives and hoodies, including the Damilola Taylor situation, since I grew up in the same estate and knew the kids involved. And with it came the stigma that black kids wake up in the morning and their only motivation would be ‘I’m going to go and kill someone,’ meaning you have people scared of black people saying ‘Oh my God, they’re all killers.’ But that wasn’t my experience. My experience growing up on the estate was that these things did happen, but people never set out just to kill someone. There could have been a fight and something tragic could have happened but we’re always on a different journey-maybe our mum would send us to the shop and we would take the whole day going to the shop. An adventure would happen in that day, you would probably even forget about the thing you were asked to get because life happened, and I just wanted to show that and say ‘Actually, here are a group of kids involved in knife crime, but they weren’t actively seeking to kill someone.’
“That was the theme for the play, but by the time we got to make the film, Kidulthood, Shank and all these films had already addressed knife crime and gang culture and we didn’t want to be the next one. It was also a problem with stereotypes where people would expect it to be and dark and gritty when it isn’t and they would say ‘I don’t get it. Why am I laughing? This is an urban film, it’s not gangsta enough.’ And we are like ‘That’s not all we do! We do like comedies” so my biggest aim was “Ok, if people are not too sure I have to amp it up and make it a comedy so that they’re not going to say it’s an urban comedy like Kidulthood, it’s not like those films.’ I’m saying it’s a comedy that can sit amongst other comedies. That was my aim and it would be silly to recreate something done on stage into film simply because times have changed and film is a bigger medium. There are a lot of people who have seen the film but not the play and won’t make any reference to it so it’s okay for the play to standalone and to create something for a new audience. And the play will still be what it was and is and stand in that bracket.”
With that in mind, and considering the position that Bola holds, I wanted to know how she felt about the black community as a whole in Britain, both in perception and genuine progress. She answered that both TV and film were important mediums to judge perception and also the stereotypes present and associated with you. In that regard, she believed that we were in decline.
“In the 50s there were more black people on TV than there are now, and yet there are more black people living in England now than there were in the 50s, which is a big ‘Hold on a minute, what went wrong here? Why are we edged out of this medium?” And that can have a big effect on how you are treated. Unfortunately in England as a black person, the minute you step into the room, your colour is the first thing people notice- even myself. Regardless of whether or not I’m a good or bad playwright. There are times when we have meetings about scripts-and I’m very opinionated and passionate about what I do, but the moment I open my mouth to debate something the response is ‘You don’t have to be so aggressive or angry.’
“But that’s the perception people have of black people, it’s never passion. It’s always seen as aggression. And I’m just here to play with those stereotypes in the film with certain moments where ‘You think you are going to get this, but you will get something else entirely.’ An example is where Tosin Cole (as Razer) and he’s like to everyone “move out of the way!” and he does the same to an old lady and the audience is on the edge of their seats like ‘He’s probably going to rob this woman’ and we switch it, because as black people we are not all bad! There are so many different shades!
“That’s my aim as a writer and I feel like that’s what motivated me, to see a change, and the only way you can see change is being that change otherwise you get people who merely sit and complain. As a kid mum would be like ‘Go and get something.’ And you go and look for it but you can’t find it, you don’t back and say ‘I can’t find it’, you find a solution to it. In my household there was never “I can’t!”. I don’t like the perceptions of black people, so I do something to change it: I wrote a film that has black people in the lead in it and we fought for that, and to make sure all these characters have a voice, not watered down for anyone.
“Even in the film where the mum is speaking Yoruba, people are always like ‘Why are there no subtitles?’ Life does not have subtitles! I’m not compromising and it may offend a lot of people who are missing out, but we live in a British society, I feel like I’m missing out in a lot of experiences and no one cares. So why should I? I come from the streets of East London and hear different dialects in different tones from other cultures and ‘m not offended by it. If I do, I will go into that other culture and learn!
“Unfortunately, sometimes in that industry we are perceived as the butt of the jokes and I don’t want to be the butt of anyone’s joke. When people go ‘The BBC needs more black people on TV’ and I think we don’t necessarily, we should create our own mediums we put out ourselves that people can relate to. When you look at Nollywood and how successful it is, regardless of the content, there is an audience. Because they won’t be making films if people don’t see it and IrokoTV would not be an online platform where the creator is successful and a millionaire without the audience to buy into the product. So I always say ‘No. You have to be the change.’ And we live in a time where the Internet exists, accessing and creating content. I mentor a young actor called Tom Moochi and he has a Vine with 19,000 followers last year from just doing stuff on his phone and putting out little comedy sketches on Instagram. He does it himself, edits it himself and already he’s already created a fan base for himself on instagram. And that’s how he got himself noticed.
Back in the day, to be an actor you had to go to drama school, perform in a play where an agent will see you and that’s how you got work. Now people know who this guy is and follow him and you go ‘If we live in a different time like that, why are we not utilizing that? Let’s see what the other mediums are to get our work seen.’ And things are revolving and changing and you just have to keep up with it and the next thing that comes along.”
You can read Bola and Destiny’e full feature in the latest issue of NL magazine. Gone Too Far is out now on DVD.
Read our review here