2016’s BFI London Film Festival paid particular focus on black British creatives within the industry, celebrating established individuals like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sophie Okonedo, as well as breaking through new talent like writer/director Joseph A. Adesuloye. His engaging debut White Colour Black follows the story of Leke (played by model-turned-actor Dudley O'Shaughnessy), a successful London photographer whose world shatters upon learning that his estranged father is on his deathbed in Senegal; this prompts a revelatory visit to his ancestral homeland.
With the film's debut at the festival, we caught up with Adesuloye to discuss contemporary sexuality, lyrical storytelling, and how it feels to have such a notable premiere...
Don’t Panic: In a lot of press for the film, Leke’s lifestyle has been described as ‘hedonistic’. How did you want to portray young people in 2016? Do you believe that his lifestyle be considered reprehensible?
Joseph A. Adesuloye: I don’t think the slightest bad thing about how young people live their lives in the most fascinating city in the world. I think it’s wonderful. I think that it’s a modern way of being. It’s not entirely new, really. I think the roaring 20s were called the roaring 20s for a reason. You force yourself into a sort of conservatism that can impose some kind of balance on people. It’s a wonderful time for young people to become creative. The outlet in which you can express creativity early comes about from sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that lifestyle at all.
DP: Cinema today struggles with showing a younger generation in a time where inaccuracies could be misconstrued as offensive. I think the way you convey Leke’s life is an interesting step in showing what millennials are actually like.
JA: For me it was really, really important that in the London part of the story - I did it justice because being young in a city like London, your concerns are very different and you’re more interested in meeting new people. Exchanging ideas that are incredible and that included exchanging each other (sexually). There is this wonderful dynamic that young people create themselves. They are creating their own rules. A new dynamic is in flux, really. It hasn’t settled down since the 90s. It is really exciting.
DP: There is a lot of lyrically repeating imagery throughout the film. Was it your intention to tell the story in a poetic way?
JA: In my work I like to reinforce imagery. Especially the repetition of imagery juxtaposed in an entirely different situation. It adds to the narrative and enforces meaning to what has come before. I like my films to unfold over time, so I would say that I am interested in the poetry of visual storytelling. What’s the most important element for me, actually, are my characters. They are more important to me than the actual narrative. I am completely fine with allowing moments in the narrative to drop in if I feel that the character will have a better internal journey, in terms of what makes sense for that character. That’s where I really make my decision-making. Reinforcing lyrical action and shots helps to keep it dynamic. What it means or what it’s saying are probably different in the moment, but I like to reinforce that moment to create a contrast.
For example, contrasting when he is happy and when he is not happy. I liked to photograph him (O'Shaughnessy) at a low angle when I think he is emotionally beaten and not himself. Traditionally a low angle shot would be used to positively emphasise a character. I like to contradict that visual. It’s nothing radical, but I enjoy the juxtaposition in the potential for lyrical imagery.
DP: There is a beautiful moment during the ceremony scene where Leke is welcomed into the community. The image of the villagers' hands framing O'Shaughnessy face, it's also been used for the promotional artwork. I’m curious about what the story was behind that moment?
JA: I’ll be honest, it’s a visual motif that I created. It is not something that is practiced in the Senegalese village in Popenguine, it’s not from any culture. I created it because a very long time ago I remember seeing these famous images of an old woman with hands around her face. It was very striking to me. I remembered whilst I was writing the script that, when I was 12 years old and first moved to Britain, a friend of mine saw the palms of my hands and asked why is it that my skin was black but my palms were white? His skin was white, his palm was white, you know? He couldn’t understand the difference. Actually, before that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me. That moment always stayed with me. That notion of identity and belonging. When I was writing the ceremony sequence- especially as Dudley is a mixed-race person - then it’s kind of the physical manifestation of what makes him what he is. He’s half white and half black. That sequence is about acceptance and protection. They have accepted him with the visual reinforcement of the hands.
DP: How does it feel to have you debut feature place at this year’s BFI LFF?
JA: It’s completely incredible and beyond anything that I could hope for. Obviously I, as a young filmmaker, and especially as a person who was interested in cinema since I was a child – I always hoped that once day one of my films would play at the festival. To be honest, in my wildest dreams I didn’t think my film would get into the festival so it’s been the most incredible journey. What is wonderful is just how supportive the team at BFI have been to my film. It’s really good that White Colour Black’s premiere is at the festival.
DP: This year’s film festival is highlighting black talent with their Black Star season. Why do you think that it is important for black filmmakers to be highlighted this year?
JA: I do know about Black Star. A friend of mine is heavily involved in the programming. I think that, first of all – the fact that it is the 60th anniversary of the festival is an interesting milestone to highlight black talent. There needs to be better representation across the arts in the UK. Sixty years is a huge milestone. It’s an incredible decision to focus of diversity. There are lots and lots of very creative and dynamic people within the BME communities and sometimes it is very hard to be noticed. You feel as if you are on an island. But it is through that struggle you urge each other on, which is really great. For the most formal institution of film in Britain to be celebrating, showcasing and encouraging black talent is incredible.
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