In ‘The Last Tree,’ a young Black man struggles to reconcile his identity as he moves from being fostered in rural Lincolnshire, to inner city London, and finally back to his country of origin, Nigeria.
The Last Tree, directed by British-Nigerian director, Shola Amoo, is the semi-autobiographical story of Femi, a British boy of Nigerian heritage who, after being fostered in rural Lincolnshire, moves to inner-city London to live with his birth mother. In his teens, Femi is struggling with the culture and values of his new environment. Femi must decide which path to adulthood he wants to take, and what it means to be a young Black man in London during the early 2000s. The film places the viewer in the perspective of Femi, as we grow and develop with him. This immersive experience allows the watcher to proverbially walk in Femi’s footsteps and feel the force of a violent act or a tender moment.
In this interview with Shola Amoo, Okayafrica contributor, Ciku Kimeria discusses issues of identity, masculinity, spirituality among others for this film that premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
What was your inspiration for telling this story?
As a semi-autobiographical story, The Last Tree, allowed me to interrogate my life as I was fostered in similar circumstances and had to navigate my route to personal identity as displayed by Femi’s character. I wanted to tell this story because I know so many who went through a similar process and spent the rest of their lives trying to figure it out. As part of the work though, I also interviewed other British-Nigerians who had been fostered under similar circumstances in their childhood to draw on their vast experiences. I also wanted to explore the role that time and location have in shaping one’s identity.
Location does clearly play a significant role in Femi’s identity changes. Let’s speak a bit more about this.
I enjoy the concept of location as a character and drew a lot of inspiration from the three distinct spaces and time frames that our narrative is enveloped by. For example, I wanted to communicate what it feels like to be in East Street Market in the hustle and bustle, to communicate the London I experienced growing up. We have a character that is moved from location to location and we see him at different points in his life. He moves from an idyllic childhood fostered in the beautiful flat plains of Lincolnshire to a troubled reconciliation with his biological mother living in a council flat in South London and finally to the bustling vibrant streets of Lagos to find his roots. Each space comes with its own cultural and political framework for Femi to navigate: he was fostered and raised in a completely different racial environment. The aim was to allow each space to retain its distinct energy but simultaneously find a synergy between all three, while also exploring the transition moving from a rural white space to an urban Black one.
Identify and that of Blackness and masculinity is a recurring theme especially as we see the teenage Femi in South London. What are your thoughts on how he tries he tries to define and reconcile these identities?
The film is an exploration of masculinity and Blackness, but also in Femi’s case, that of Africanness especially when he is in South London where his major identity crises hits. He is trying to be strong Black man in this context where his ideas of strength are not necessarily rooted on the ideals valued by characters such as Femi’s benevolent teacher (Mr. Williams – also Black and also a product of council housing), but rather by small time hustlers such as Mace and Dwayne. His search for an authentic identity always leads Femi to wear different types of masks to hide what is going on inside him. When the masks finally fall off, it calls us to challenge the perception of what masculinity, Blackness and Africannness are sometimes simplified to.
Tope, one of the female leads in the film, plays a vital role in getting Femi to take off his masks. There also seems to be some commentary on colorism in the Black community through her character, right?
Yes, Tope is a dark skinned girl who gets made fun of by her Black schoolmates for her complexion. She is strong and resilient, somehow surviving the bullying and the negative stereotypes while still holding her head up high. She’s singled out and it hasn’t broken her. She’s in the film to show Femi what strength means and the need for him to drop his masks and try to find his unique, authentic identity. When I was growing up and going to school, South London wasn’t what it is now in terms of Blackness and Africanness being celebrated. It’s not a utopia now, but the internet is playing a role. At the time I was a teenager, being very dark or having an African name was stigmatized even by other Black people in South London.
When Femi and his mother visit Nigeria, the role of spirituality/traditional African religion appears. I would love to hear more from you on those particular scenes.
African religions are generally projected in a negative light and I didn’t want that to be the case in The Last Tree. His trip to Lagos is about him trying to define his identity and this includes understanding his history and roots. The traditional religion that his mother has always followed is an important part of his story. I wanted to show it as a way that gives him access to Nigeria and that side of his ancestry.
Where can people watch the film? What has the reception been like?
It premiered at Sundance last year to very positive reviews and was released in the UK in September and received a number of awards from the British Independent Film Awards 2019 for Best Supporting Actress and Most Promising Newcomer.
It was recently released in the US in June and was also in cinema in Nigeria a few months back. It was also released on HBO Europe. It’s virtual release on June 26th saw 50 independent theaters pick it up. For details on when The Last Tree will be available for viewing in your city, click here.