Don’t come to the new British film Farming expecting to learn anything about crop rotation or common fell grazing. Natural beauty is thin on the ground in Tilbury, the Essex port town where the picture unfolds in the 1970s and 1980s, though there are flashes of exotic wildlife: a piglet meets a sticky end in a scrapyard and there’s a thug who gets his python out in a pub. Well, it was a different time back then.
The title refers to Nigerian couples living in Britain and “farming” their children out to white working-class families to be raised while they busy themselves working and studying, only returning years later to reclaim them. Reliable figures don’t exist for this off-the-books practice, but the actor turned film-maker Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje believes that more than half of all British-Nigerian children raised during that period would have been farmed at some point in their lives. He was one of them and Farming is his story, more or less, though it’s fair to say his experience may not have been typical. Reader, he became a racist skinhead.
It’s to the film’s credit that this outcome for his on-screen surrogate, Enitan, feels plausible as well as startling. His foster mother, Ingrid (Kate Beckinsale), amasses a whole Nigerian brood, each one accompanied by a wad of cash from the grateful parents, and Eni (played as a child by Zephan Amissah) is the most disparaged of the bunch. Ridiculed for his tendency to drift off into cloud-cuckoo-land, he is only offered a chance to become Ingrid’s favourite when he agrees to steal jewellery for her.
She and her friends mock him and his foster siblings, threatening to send them back to “Wooga Wooga Land” if they misbehave. Outraged modern audiences should remember that this species of cheerful racism was ubiquitous, and endorsed culturally by popular TV comedy of the time: Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language, Jim Davidson. Some reminder of this normalised hostility would have been helpful in evoking the film’s period setting, but at least there was money in the kitty to pay for the use in one scene of Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie”, that Jamaican-British number one hit from a time when the marching of the National Front was still part of the ambient noise of everyday life.
With his foster parents using his race against him, it is no wonder Eni’s sense of identity becomes unstable. As a teenager (and now played by Damson Idris) he gravitates toward Levi (John Dalgleish), a scowling tattooed bullyboy, after seeing how his gang, the Tilbury Skins, puts the frighteners on the local police. Once Eni has shown he can take a few beatings, he becomes Levi’s pet. As a child he had an Alsatian set on him by racist neighbours but now he plays the part of attack dog himself, perched obediently by Levi’s DMs. The racism he has internalised bubbles and froths out of every pore. He throws a milk-bottle at his sister and calls her a “black bitch”, drapes a “Keep Britain White” banner across his bedroom at home and looks on impassively as his sympathetic teacher Ms Dapo (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is assaulted by his chums in red braces and Fred Perry.
This is all powerful as far as it goes but Farming leaves too many questions unanswered to be anything more than superficially shocking. There is never much sense of how far Ingrid’s Nigerian children are tolerated in the white neighbourhood, or of how the racial make-up of her own family has informed her fostering choices. “We’re Gypsies,” says her mother at one point. “We don’t deal with the law.” Presumably, then, they’ve been on the receiving end of bigotry themselves, but you’d have to be sharp to take this hint. Other important moments, such as Ingrid first spotting Eni with his disreputable pals (“You been running with those yobbo skinheads down the docks!”) or his eventual rehabilitation at the hands of Ms Dapo, are so rushed it’s possible to wonder if you’ve imagined them.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s slightly numbed screenplay never gets to grips with who Eni is, resorting instead to using other characters’ observations (“You don’t care about nuthin’”) to define him. We’re always being told that he lives largely in his imagination, so a more subjective visual style, on a par with similarly hard-bitten character studies such as Bronson or The Krays, might have provided access to his interior life. But Eni remains as remote from us as he is from his family, and it doesn’t help that Idris, who was 26 when the film was made, is required to play a decade younger. “You’re 16 now!” Ingrid reminds him, and it will be a restrained audience indeed that doesn’t call back at the screen: “As if.”
There’s no question that Akinnuoye-Agbaje should be commended for dramatising such a raw chapter from his own life without soft-pedalling the pain and humiliation he suffered. Perhaps a film-maker with more distance from the material, though, would have had a better shot at turning the promising base metal of autobiography into cinematic gold.
dir: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
This article appears in the 09 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain