TBB Talks to … Lanre Malaolu about his powerful short film ‘Figure’.

Lanre Malaolu is a London based director, choreographer and performance artist.

Malaolu is also a trained actor (Drama Centre London) and has worked extensively in theatre and television. He was chosen as the overall winner of the Zealous Emerge performance prize,  a nationwide search championing the UK’s best emerging performance artists in 2018. He was the choreographer and movement artist on The British Council film by Shola Amoo & Phoebe Boswell ‘Dear Mr Shakespeare’, which was selected for the Sundance Film Festival in 2017. Lanre was also the chosen choreographer on the inaugural Old Vic 12 talent network in 2016.

Malaolu recently directed & choreographed ‘Figure‘ a short film about black men and their ‘father figures’. Told through contemporary movement, Figure has won multiple awards and screened at film festivals around the world including Zanzibar, Texas, Toronto, Vancouver as well as being selected for the BAFTA recognised Aesthetica Short Film festival.

TBB Talks caught up with Malaolu to discuss the importance of figures to black men …  

Introduce yourself

I’m a director, choreographer and performer who works across theatre and film.

Tell us about ‘Figure‘ …

It’s about two boys who’ve grown up without their father being consistently present in their lives, and how they emotionally navigate themselves in the world because of this.

Photo credit: Salima Kamara

Why this story?

Firstly, because it’s my truth and many other black men’s truth I’ve grown up with and around. However, this doesn’t stray away from the fact that there are many many black men who are fathers and are fully present in their son’s lives. I was very conscious in the early stages of developing this about not perpetuating the “absent black father” narrative, floated about in mainstream media. However, staying true to my experience and my pain was paramount. Importantly, when people watch the film, they will realise that there is a bigger idea at play that overtakes that narrative. I won’t give it away, but there’s a clear moment in the film

The piece is extremely vulnerable yet still retains a strong black masculinity throughout it where did you go within yourself to come up with the narrative and visual style?

To the truth. I always knew the truth of these emotions and feelings in my life, and me making this film was me being ready to face and decipher them head-on, instead of continuing to carry the weight of it. The concept of being vulnerable and very masculine at the same time, or oscillating between the two as a black man is something I find really interesting and consciously wanted to explore through the movement.

Tell us about the process of making the film?

I had the idea (initially inspired by listening to the track, ‘Feel‘ by Kendrick Lamar). I let the idea tumble in my mind a bit, played with some movement in my kitchen/bedroom and was like, ‘yeah…. this is happening‘. I then spoke to my cinematographer Monika Jastrzebska, who’s one of the few people I use as a sounding board for my film ideas now, as she gets the work I make and the power of movement on film (and was the only person I wanted to shoot it). I did some more tumbling in my head and in my kitchen, then eventually got in a studio with Nnabiko Ejimofor, the other performer in the film and played with the physical structure and ideas of it.

It was a pretty intense few months of prep and shooting, due to time/budget constraints and along with directing, choreographing and being in the film, I was also producing the first half of the film’s development: getting the team together, space scouting, scheduling and all that fun stuff. Until my co-producer Lorna Nickson Brown came on board to support and guide post-production.

How did you choose who you wanted to work with on this project? Was there a need to resonate with the material a consideration?

It was key for people to resonate with the material, but also to have a real interest and understanding of the power movement has to tell engaging and nuanced stories. Also, on a personal level, I always make sure the energy feels right with whomever I get in a space with or bring into a project.

How are black men feeling today?

I was part of a gathering organised by Ecplise Theatre last year (linked to their play Black Men Walking at The Royal Court). It was a gathering in a space only open to black men to attend and talk about vulnerability, masculinity, race and mental health. We sat together and talked openly and honestly for 2 hours and it just felt so vital. I think having more organised spaces like this is key.

Do black women feature anywhere in response to the above question?

100%, but I think the conversation must start between black men first. I remember watching an interview with Jay-Z, he was talking about how fights would normally start around his area when he was younger with “What you looking at?…”. Jay-Z mentioned that as he grew older he realised that the black men who said that to each other were basically saying “Oh, you see me, you see my pain…” which was them trying to protect themselves from showing that pain by strapping it up with anger and aggression. I was like, ‘shit, that’s it‘, strapping up that pain, that fear, that vulnerability with aggression. I think the first step is to sit down with other black men and decipher what that pain is, or at the very least be aware of it and talk about it with each other in order to affect the first step to change.

You’re better known for being in front of the camera, how is your career going what’s in the pipeline?

I took a conscious step away from acting to focus on making my own work and developing projects for the past year and a half. One of the big things I have coming up is my solo show which I wrote, choreographed and will perform in “Elephant in the room”, commissioned by the Camden Peoples Theatre with development supported by Talawa Theatre, The Place, The Wellcome Trust, and MGC futures. I’ll be doing a 3 week run of the show this April which is pretty mad, especially as its been several years in the making. That’s taking up my main focus at the mo. I’m also in post-production for my next film supported by the BFI, as well as a few other things in the works.

Who is your ‘figure‘?

Every black man rising above and through their trials and tribulations, their pain… and my mum.

Find out more about Elephant in the Room here.


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