'Farming': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
A potent but heavy-handed portrait of internalized racism.

A troubled black teenager joins a white racist gang in Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's autobiographical debut, which co-stars Kate Beckinsale and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

After Spike Lee's audacious true story of cross-racial infiltration in BlackKklansman, the more modestly scaled U.K. drama Farming goes one further with a lurid based-on-reality account of a black British teenager who joins a white racist skinhead gang in early 1980s Britain. The British-born actor turned writer-director Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Lost, Oz, Game of Thrones) has taken more than 15 years to bring his debut feature to fruition, with development help from the Sundance Institute, among others. Unfortunately, it seems even this lengthy gestation period was not quite long enough to polish his screenplay, which still feels like a very rough draft.

Closely based on the director's own troubled youth, Farming is rooted in rich, complex, potentially gripping material. But Akinnuoye-Agbaje slaps this story together with so little subtlety, he ends up seriously diluting its dramatic power. Fresh from its Toronto premiere, this twisted coming-of-age saga should generate media traction and further festival bookings based on its potent subject matter, boosted by the presence of Kate Beckinsale and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the cast. But theatrical prospects will be limited by the film's bludgeoning, ham-fisted execution.

That cryptic title refers to a policy, popular among Nigerian parents in 1960s and 1970s Britain, of "farming out" their newborn offspring to white foster parents for years at a time, paying strangers for full-time childcare while they concentrated on studies or careers. Akinnuoye-Agbaje knows this territory well. In 1967, at just six weeks old, his Nigerian college student parents placed him with a white couple in Tilbury, a blue-collar dockside town on the Thames estuary east of London. With up to 10 African children sharing their cramped house, his foster parents were loving and progressive-minded, but not immune to occasional moments of cruelty and casual racism.

Akinnuoye-Agbaje meticulously recreates his own childhood in Farming, even shooting in the actual Tilbury house where he was raised. His autobiographical alter ego Enitan (Zephan Amissah) is a sensitive, introverted boy often left bruised by the tough-love methods of his foster mother Ingrid (Kate Beckinsale) and her truck-driver husband Jack (Lee Ross). Growing up black on the wrong side of the tracks in a poor, overwhelmingly white community is no picnic. Constantly subjected to racist abuse at school, Enitan comes to hate his own dark skin, even trying to lighten it with talcum powder.

In his teens, the older Enitan (Damson Idris) is repeatedly targeted for beatings by a skinhead gang led by sadistic sociopath Levi (John Dagliesh). Gleefully exploiting Enitan's conflicted self-loathing over his racial identity, Levi adopts him into the gang as a kind of perverse mascot, firstly dehumanizing him with mental and physical torture, then forcing him to join vicious attacks against black victims. Despite Ingrid's angry protestations and the efforts of a kindly bi-racial teacher (Mbatha-Raw) to steer him towards a more positive path, Enitan embraces the nihilistic skinhead lifestyle with a full-blooded fury that inevitably escalates into life-threatening violence.

Farming is a great story ultimately defeated by its own unrelenting boorishness. The characters are crudely rendered cartoons, the performances overcooked, the dialogue jarringly literal-minded. Casting Beckinsale in such a small project was a coup, but she never convinces as a rough-diamond cockney matriarch, while 37-year-old Dagliesh is simply too old to pass muster as the leader of an adolescent gang. The violence is visceral and energetically staged, but it always feels stilted and stylized, like an amateur Shakespeare production. The seductively evil cult allure of fascist street gangs, as explored in thematically similar films like Henry Bean's The Believer or Shane Meadows' This Is England, barely registers in the screenplay's simplistic psychology.

Credit is due to Akinnuoye-Agbaje for his tenacious commitment to this long-gestating passion project, which extends to playing a cameo role as his own father, and performing most of the soundtrack songs in the ranting, punky style associated with skinhead subcultures. A handful of vintage ska and reggae tracks by the likes of Sugar Minott and Musical Youth will also press Proustian nostalgia buttons for anyone who grew up in 1980s Britain. There is much to admire in Farming, if only it was not delivered with all subtlety of a brick smashed in the face.

Production companies: Groundswell Productions, Montebello Productions
Cast: Damson Idris, Kate Beckinsale, Zephan Amissah, John Dagleish, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lee Ross
Director-screenwriter: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Producers: Michael London, Janice Williams, Francois Invernel, Andrew Levitas
Cinematographer: Kit Fraser
Editor: Tariq Anwar
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Sales: HanWay Films, London

107 minutes