I n his short film Entitled, Nigerian British filmmaker Adeyemi Michael pays homage to his mother through gorgeous visuals and regal symbolism. Just in time for Mother’s Day, we were able to speak with Adeyemi about the inspiration behind his film, what he hopes to portray about the immigrant experience, and how through his work he is reimaging his people beyond the limits of current narratives.
(Edited for length and clarity)
Radiant Health: What draws you to film and storytelling?
Adeyemi Michael: I’m a Cancer. We’re very crabby, emotional folks. Film is an outlet for me to be able to talk about how I feel about the world and myself as well. It sounds very cliché, but I’m sure I was made to do this.
I really feel like my work is around the preservation of black life and creating value on black life. Even when it’s about a kid on trial for murder—how do we teach men to value their lives and not kill each other? How do you place value back on it and not trivialize it like the media does?
It’s not just because she’s on the horse that they’re bowing down. This is part of who we are.
This film about my mom is about value and our culture, my culture. My mom’s story is triumphant, victorious, and celebratory; there’s value in that, too. There’s a lot of stuff that hasn’t been done on us, and people are only starting to see that now.
I’m not here to tell other people’s stories. This is about reimagining ourselves beyond the narrative that others have created for us. It’s also about f—king it up a little bit and changing up the narrative of how we do things.
RH: This is an absolutely gorgeous film, dedicated to your mother. Can you share a little back story on your chosen topic and what inspired you to portray her this way?
AM: I wouldn’t be able to do this if it wasn’t for her. I feel the responsibility to make her proud. She let me do whatever I wanted to growing up, when I was a kid who was drawing and such and never caring about anything academic. She just let me be.
The reason I chose this subject is because I’m a Nigerian born in Nigeria and living in the UK as a first-generation Nigerian. I wasn’t a British citizen until not too long ago, but I’ve always been Nigerian.
My mom had worked somewhere for more than 25 years, and she got made redundant. She would talk to us and be frustrated at the fact that a 23-year-old would be given the job over her, who didn’t have the experience that she had. She felt like she was always overlooked, like she wasn’t enough. When she tried to get back on the working ladder, it was hard.
I had already spoken to her about doing this film when the redundancy came around, and she said whatever you need for your work, son, I will help you. She’s that type of mom.
I wanted her to be in the position to subvert the narrative that she was being made to live in the UK, and that we were all being made to live constantly in white spaces. Especially in the colonialist state that we live in here in the UK, and the relationship we have with this country in Nigeria.
I researched colonialist rulers who came to Nigeria and tried to figure out their position and how they came to be, and how I could reverse that. Thus, the idea was born of my mother being on the horse and dressed in the clothes that she would have come to the UK in. What do you take with you when you’re coming to a new country? You take your culture, your traditions. Everything was born from that.
The shoes that you see her wearing, she’s had those for over 30 years. These shoes are very symbolic of her journey coming to this country. That’s like a hidden message within the film about our parents’ trek to get to these foreign lands, and what they take with them.
It was really important to have a very specific look and aesthetic that felt authentic as well, because that journey for many people, no matter what country you’re coming from, is an epic journey. White privilege allows an American or a Brit or French person to go to an African country and still be treated like they are above. They don’t know what it means to leave their country and be in that position, because they get to call themselves “expatriates.”
It was with that notion that I wanted to challenge the colonial state and what it would mean being an immigrant coming to another country and reclaiming your status, taking it all back.
RH: Your mom specifies in the film that she is both Nigerian and British. What does this film try to capture about maintaining your identity when leaving your country of origin?
AM: My mother has spent more than half of her life in the UK. She left Nigeria when she was 24, and now she’s 56. She sounds like a British person, but when she chops Yoruba, she’s Yoruba; we can flip between the two.
As much as we know we’re Nigerian first, we can’t deny the part of us that’s British. It’s this weird nomadic state that you’re in constantly, because we embody both. However, while we’re not unproud to be British, we’re very proud to be Nigerian.
RH: The film begins with your mother bare-faced, without makeup or anything on her head. Can you explain that decision?
AM: Starting without the makeup was a transformative concept in the film. You have these third-generation immigrant kids, and it’s almost like they’re reinstating my mom.
When the camera pans down and you see her sitting there, this is the moment at which she’s being transported back to who she really is, to where she is now 30 years deep in the UK.
It was also really important to have those third-generation kids making her up. Think about the concept of kids making up an adult. It just doesn’t happen. It signifies that it’s within their hands. They have the power to retain our culture and what it means to be from where we’re from.
Once you see her dressed in full regalia, it’s as if they’ve placed her in that position because they understand what that culture is as well. Not many third-generation kids understand that yet, but they have it. It’s in the genes. You’ll never stop being a Nigerian, or a Ghanaian, etc. wherever you are.
RH: The film is short, but rife with symbolism. Can you walk us through how you conceptualized it, and any hidden messages or homages in the scenes?
AM: This project was born from my mom’s collection of shoes. The film focuses on her feet a lot: my mom’s 500 pairs of shoes are ridiculous. My old bedroom is full of her stuff, and that’s where part of the frustration came from at the time. I was frustrated and wondered why she had all that stuff and what was happening with her, with being made redundant.
It all hit me at one point. She’s brought all her life to this country, and look what this country has given her back. The shoes that you see her wearing, she’s had those for over 30 years. These shoes are very symbolic of her journey coming to this country. That’s like a hidden message within the film about our parents’ trek to get to these foreign lands, and what they take with them.
When you see the twins at the end of the film, it’s an homage to my dad, who’s a twin as well, without being too overt about it.
My mum rides on a horse on the high street in Peckham: the film is about that arrival. This is where we landed 30-something years ago when we came here as immigrants. The high street is symbolic. The majority of the shots on that street and the lives that exist there speak completely to the immigrant narrative and say a lot about what people have come to do.
People have businesses there, and communities meet. We have that intersectional conversation. Now gentrification in that area is taking over. So, putting my mom on that street was an ode to that: Just so you know, we’re here. We ain’t going nowhere. As much as you’d like to pretend we don’t exist.
RH: There are references to royalty throughout the film, such as the various strangers bowing to your mother, juxtaposed with a very plain community in England. What were you trying to show with that?
AM: The regal nature is definitely there, highlighted by the purple gele [the Yoruba word for a Nigerian head tie]. It’s intentional with the message: We are royalty. You see people prostrating (a young girl gets on her knees as you do back home, and a young guy touches the ground as a greeting). I do that, and that’s how we were raised in Yoruba culture. It was a way of showing the things we do back home, and that we retain them and understand them.
It’s not just because she’s on the horse that they’re bowing down. This is part of who we are. We can’t shed these traditions because of our white Western surroundings.
RH: The idea of preserving one’s cultural identity weighs heavily on this film. In what ways has your mother inspired you to infuse your heritage into your work?
AM: My mom has been training me for this moment through the upbringing I’ve been given, and the fact that I can understand and speak Yoruba. Her being on the horse … she did all of that by doing all the things that she did and keeping us within the community.
She sowed the seeds when I was a baby and a kid. I was being readied to do this kind of work. In making this film and the films I’ve done before, the through-line is us and our identity.
When I talk about reimagining ourselves, that’s because of my upbringing. When it comes to the work that I do, right now my focus is just us. And through us, people can understand themselves. This thing has traveled, and I’ve had people from Ukraine connecting with it.
Just because it’s something specifically Nigerian, or Yoruba, or set in a specific part of London doesn’t mean people can’t relate. From that specificity, the personal, you go to the universal.
My mom has equipped me well for that. Even now, when I tell her my project ideas, she suggests how I should think about them. Spiritually, she tells me I need to seek the word of God, that this is God’s work, not just me out here. God is at the heart of it all and she pushes me to not forget that.
My work is influenced by my culture because my work is me. When you see and you feel what you feel, you’re feeling me. You’re feeling my heart and soul in the work.
RH: Can you identify any forms of self-care your mother undertook while learning to survive in and thrive in a foreign land?
AM: We travel a lot. We always get out around Christmastime and just spend time together as a family. My mom also eats well. She’s on Instagram, and all the pages she follows are about alkaline diets, eating dairy free, going vegan, etc. She doesn’t even eat red meat anymore, and she pushes me to get meat out of my diet. She won’t even cook it. She’s now blending ginger into the stew and only eating fish.
She also went back to the university and is in her final year of a marketing degree. That’s another form of self-care, reeducating yourself.
RH: Any upcoming projects we should be on the lookout for?
AM: There’s a fiction feature film that we’re about to make and another project that’s a feature documentary that we’re working on. That’s all I can say at the moment.
RH: And finally, what does your mother say at the very end of the film?
AM: Ma se gbagbe omo eni to je: “You should be proud of who you are.”
When you say that phrase in Yoruba, it runs deep. It’s referencing back to history and ourselves, and where we’ve actually come from.
To learn more about Adeyemi Michael and his films, visit www.adeyemimichael.com.
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