Bola Agbaje is young, successful and determined to make her mark in the world of theatre and film. A critically acclaimed playwright with her work in theatres since 2007, and a winner of the Laurence Olivier Award, Agbaje has now ventured into film with the release of Gone Too Far a remake of her first play out this October.
I caught up with Bola at the British Film Institute (BFI) over a cup of tea to discuss her new film and what it represents for Black culture in the UK.
Tell us what Gone Too Far is about?
Gone Too Far is a film about two brothers from two different continents, Yemi who grew up in Peckham and his brother Ikudayisi who grew up in Nigeria. Ikudayisi comes to London to live with Yemi and and the film follows them as they go to Peckham to go buy Okra for their mum. It’s a coming of age story as Yemi tries to figure out who he is and what he stands for. You could say that it’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles meets Coming to America but in Peckham.
Originally Gone Too Far was a play, what made you decide to adapt it into a film?
I did a writing course at The Royal Court Theatre and that’s how I ended up getting into theatre, but I’ve always been a film fan and I’ve always wanted to write films. When the opportunity came to adapt Gone Too Far into a screenplay I took it.
Was the transition hard?
It was a learning curve because writing for a play is very dialogue based, you rely heavily on the fact that the characters talk a lot and tell you everything. Whereas on screen it’s about trying to tell a story visually, trying to keep the essence of the play, but also trying to create something brand new. There are so many people who haven’t seen the play so if I tried to recreate the play it would have been dated. So it was just learning the balance of this being a new medium and creating something new. The play has a dark tone to it because of when I wrote it, whereas the film is a comedy which is deliberate. I wanted to do something different.
Were you involved in the process of casting the actors?
Some of them yes. I knew some of the actors from before and they did a reading for us when we were trying to find funders. Others, in terms of the film, Destiny (Director) was the one that cast them because she was looking for a specific type of actor.
How involved were you in the production of the film?
I’m a social writer rather than a lock yourself in a room kind of person, I grew up in a big family so I’m used to being around people. So in terms of being involved, I was on set every day because I wanted to see it come alive, I wanted to be a part of that journey. I’ve worked with Destiny on other projects and what we do is feed of of each others energy. So if I have written something I would get her advice and ask her what she thinks and we work like that rather than me sayin’ ‘here is the script now you go and do what you want with it’.
Do you think the film will have the same success the play did?
I hope it does. It’s a small film with a very small budget. So far with all the festival screenings we have done we have gotten good feedback. It is one of those films that once you see it, and if you enjoy it, you will tell somebody else about it. I’m not one of those writers that cares about being critically acclaimed and no one knows you, I would like it to be a successful film and I’d like for people to get something from it.
Who is your target audience?
It’s young people because it’s something they can relate to and there aren’t that many films for young people, about young people. It’s for everybody because a lot of the time people look at black films and say, ‘that’s just for black people so I can’t relate’. I find it quite annoying when people say they can’t relate to a black person or to an African because they are not. Whereas we watch films with white people all the time and relate, because we relate to the emotional journey of those characters.
You don’t have to be African to understand the story of a young African coming to England for the first time. We all migrate and around. There are people from Ireland who have come to live in England for the first time, even if you move from South to North London it’s a big thing. So if you put yourself in the position of how it feels to be an outsider and how it feels to search for where you belong, then you will relate to the film.
Do you think the film represents the true Peckham experience?
I think so! There is a huge stereotype of Peckham; about what young people do in Peckham and I think that this is a film that kinda shows they are like everyone else. There is a scene in the film where four boys are in a car talking, and one of the people in the industry who had read (the script) said, “That’s unrealistic, they would never have that conversation…I don’t expect them to have that conversation”, as if they didn’t expect young people to talk. We talk all the time about race, culture and who we are. Gone Too Far was the experience I had as a young person which is that we were constantly debating about who we are and what we stand for and an array of other things. I remember watching Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) and although it has the riot at the end, I still wanted to go to Brooklyn and see what it was about. I would hope that people watch Gone Too Far and say ‘I wanna go to Peckham it seems live, I wanna go buy some Okra, I wanna walk through that market’.
You said the film is based on your experiences growing up?
My experience growing up in Peckham was that I was ashamed of being African because of the stigma that came with being African. But that’s evolved over time. I have a younger sister who is 20 whose experience of being African is totally different to mine. That was another major difference between the play and the film, in the play Yemi was ashamed to be African. He had to learn that it was cool to be African. In the film he is ashamed about having an embarrassing brother, there are a lot of people who are ashamed of having an embarrassing sibling. If I had kept the same theme running throughout the film as I did with the play then young people now wouldn’t relate to it because young Africans are proud to be African. I had to change that and take from the experiences of others not just my own.
Do you think anyone will be offended by some of the cultural stereotypes in the film?
Yes and no. It’s funny that you bring up stereotypes because people look at the ones that offend them in terms of their experiences. There are stereotypes running throughout the whole film against Nigerians and Africans. For instance, there’s a scene where one of the brothers is ‘offensive’ to the Asian shopkeeper’s daughter Aisha, people have said that it was rude. But Aisha says to him first, “Give Nigerians an inch and they’ll take a mile” which is really offensive. But people don’t comment on that because they are used to offending Africans rather than the other way around. I feel that the offence is balanced and I think it’s realistic to how people think. If people are offended, it’s a good thing because it opens debate. It’s important to have dialogue about how we talk and address each other because we do approach people based on stereotypes. Especially black people, we are constantly looked at as a whole, we are never individualised. As a Black female there are many assumptions made of me as soon as I walk into a room. It’s what is wrong with the world today.
Do you think the way you have used comedy has softened the blow?
It’s the way I digest things. Whenever I have watched something and I’ve had that knee-jerk reaction which is first to laugh, then think, oh but why am I laughing that’s rude, and then you think about it. If I didn’t do it like that you would feel like someone was badgering and preaching a message. I’m not here to preach to the world I just want to show a mirror of what the world we live in is like. So yes the comedy softens the blow. I find that fascinating when people think they can’t laugh because they don’t want to offend someone.
Cultural acceptance and identity are the basis of the film, how important are these subjects to you in your life?
They are of major importance, it took me so long to figure out who I was and what I stood for, and once I figured that out I more or less knew what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve found that as a writer I’m always analysing people and lives and what I noticed is that when you don’t know who you are it effects the choices you make. In every single one of my plays or anything I have written, the running theme is identity and a sense of belonging.
You touch on the subject of shadism amongst black women, is this an issue that you would further develop in your writing?
There is this thought that every dark-skinned girl has a complex about their skin complexion and that they want to be light-skinned. Whereas my experience was not that. I grew up watching The Cosby Show and I wanted to be like Rudy Huxtable. I also grew up in a household where everyone was dark so there was never ever that issue. It was only when I went to college that there was this divide, like you shouldn’t be comfortable with your skin because you’re dark-skinned. I couldn’t understand that.
So what I wanted to do was to flip the stereotype on its head. Usually the lighter girl is seen as sweet and nice and the dark-skinned girl is the unattractive one that has all the attitude; the aggressor, loudmouth, screaming, shouting, attitude holding character. So in my portrayal of Armani she was the loud one and Paris was the humble nice girl. I was in a screening once and there was this group of mixed raced girls, they were so offended by Armani’s character. It was interesting to see because usually that is me watching the dark-skinned girl being portrayed in a negative light in films and television.
It is something very significant in our society for instance, my niece was playing the Kim Kardashian computer game; a lot of these games don’t have a darker skin shade to create the character avatars or any characteristics that you can associate with being black. She created a character that was white. It’s sad because as kids they don’t see themselves represented all the time so in terms of their references they only have white characters and white names to choose from. When I created Gone Too Far my first motivation was to write a play that had African names in it because I exist as an African in England, so why can’t I see my name anywhere? When it comes to skin tone and those discussions, the more we see of ourselves and not one light-skinned woman to represent all light-skinned women and not one dark-skinned woman to represent all dark-skinned women the less it will be a discussion. But until then, we are always gonna have this debate. So yeah it is something I would consider developing more.\
Do you intend on adapting any of your other plays into film?
I’m actually working on my play Belonging at the moment. It came on in 2012 at The Royal Court and it’s about a politician who goes back to Nigeria to relax but ends up getting into politics over there. I decided to develop it because I think it has filmic elements to it so it would be a great film. The thing about a play is that you’re restricted because it’s on stage and the audience has to use their imagination a lot, whereas in a film you can put those characters in those worlds and make it bigger. Belonging has a bigger world that I would like to play around with.
There aren’t that many successful female black playwrights around at the moment, do you feel that this is an advantage or disadvantage to you?
It’s a disadvantage because people don’t see them and always assume they don’t exist, when there are really great black playwrights who are trying to get onto that ladder who are not given the opportunity. I don’t want to be that token person that they put in the limelight for the time being and I put emphasis on “time being” because it’s never really for a long period of time. You’re often held as “the one” for a short period and then you’re gone.
I’ve always said the (black) generation before us in England did us a disservice because they never worked together and because of this there was nothing in place for the likes of myself and Destiny, so when we came through it was the same battles all over again. When we go into these rooms about creating content that has black characters we are having the same debates that people had 50 years ago. We shouldn’t have to have these debates about ‘are you sure this is gonna work?’ or ‘this is a niche market only for black people’. The more people acknowledged in the industry the more work there will be available. If you look at someone like Debbie Tucker Green, she came before me and inspires me, I look at her work and think that I want to do what she does in terms of how she affects her audience and I’m inspired by that. I want to be able to inspire someone else like she did to me and hope that it is a chain reaction.
How hard was it for you to get your work recognised and how did you keep the momentum?
Because I’m only a London based writer only people in London know who I am. It’s great because London is the Capital and it’s my home but at the same time it’s still a struggle. None of my plays have ever gone outside of London so it’s a weird one because yes, I’m critically acclaimed and I’ve got all these awards but if you ask someone in Birmingham or Manchester who I am or what I do, they might not know. In terms of keeping momentum I just keep working and trying to push those bars and get better at it. It’s been a great learning curve for me.
Have you always wanted to be a playwright?
I’ve always wanted to be an actor. But from 2006 I decided I wanted to be a writer. I’ve lost the acting bug I don’t want to be an actor anymore.
I thought being a writer would be the perfect excuse to insert yourself into your films…
I am in a film! I did like a Spike Lee thing. I’m in a library scene. I’m always going to be in my films even if I’m gonna be that person who just walks past and say “What!” I’ll always be there. I had a line, it was “shush” [laughing].
What advice would you give anyone who wants to become a writer?
To just write. That is the biggest lesson that I’ve been taught and it’s the biggest thing that I have to keep reminding myself to do as a writer. You can procrastinate so long and never put anything down. So just write.
What are your plans for the next year?
I’m working on Gone to Africa which is part 2 to Gone Too Far, they all go to Nigeria. I’m also working on a web series with Destiny. We are doing our own projects now because I’m tired of writing treatments for TV stations and other channels that just don’t go anywhere. It’s draining and takes away your creativity. I don’t want to be one of those people that sits around and complains about getting no work. I’d rather create my own opportunities which is why I’ve created a production company called Too Far Media which I set up with my business partner Clive Holdsworth, we’ve bought some equipment and on the weekend we make some stuff.
If there was anybody dead or alive that you could sit down with and pick their brain who would it be and why?
I’d pick two people. Recently and only because it affected me, Robin Williams, because I grew up watching all his films. I watched Hook when I was a kid and it was one of many films that made me want to be an actor because I just wanted to be in that fantasy world. I’d pick his brains because he was such a funny man and he brought so much joy to people’s lives. I love comedy because of that reason, it relaxes people. I would like to know whether he knew the effect he had on people. The other person would obviously be Oprah. I would love to be invited to her house for dinner so we could have a conversation about being black and successful.
October is Black History month what will you be doing to celebrate it this year?
The release of the film! We were really keen to have it in Black History month. I hope that discussions are created and people do come out and see it on the 10th of October. I hope it inspires people to celebrate being Black or Black/British and saying we are here. Because our film is such a very small film it’s important that people come out and support it. Films like Gone Too Far are not like the films with big budgets that will be in the cinema for ages, it will only be in the cinema for a short period of time. So in order for films like this to keep coming out you need to support it. You have to go to the cinema on the opening weekend because those are the figures that will be looked at, and that will determine whether or not it will last for longer in the cinema.
No watching it online please. Since I’ve been a writer I’ve realised the dangers of piracy and buying DVD’s off the street. The adverse effect is that if the numbers aren’t seen at the cinema and they don’t see that people are going out to watch the films, then they’ll say there is no audience so people won’t invest money into it. We are always complaining about there being no black people on the big screen and TV, but we have to show there is an audience for these characters and these lives and these stories. So go and watch the film.
Gone Too Far will screen at Picturehoue Central, Piccadilly with a Q&A 13 Oct 2016: Find out more via the Royal Court Theatre website.
It gets general release in cinemas up and down the Country from the 10th October. Go and see it!