TIFF Review: Farming
Farming is the heartbreaking autobiographical story of its director, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and his experiences with racism and white supremacy growing up. It focuses on the common practice called, “farming,” where west African parents would send their children to be raised by white foster parents in the United Kingdom, which dates back to the 1950s and was in full swing while Akinnuoye-Agbaje was a child. Farming is a fascinating story, but the film suffers from an unrelentingly bleak tone that makes it a bit of a slog to get through.
Enitan (played by Damson Idris in what should be a breakout role for him) is a young Nigerian boy growing up in working class England during the 1980s. He is raised with a gaggle of other Nigerian children by a foster mother (Kate Beckinsale) who plays favorites and casually threatens to send them back to Africa if they don’t behave. Probably not exactly what his Nigerian parents, who left Eni with the understanding that they would reclaim him once they finished university, were expecting.
From the beginning, Eni is a bit different — he plays by himself, inventing stories behind the couch, his sensitive nature perhaps not a perfect fit for the harsh, frequently violent atmosphere that surrounds him.
But things don’t get better when is reunited with his birth parents. Being sent to Nigeria, with its unfamiliar language and culture, is a tremendous shock to the system for Eni and he is quickly sent back to England, traumatized.
By the time he reaches high school, he is hanging on by a thread. His misdirected anger turns inward in the form of self-loathing, as he has clearly internalized the casual racism in the climate he has grown up in, where being black is immediately associated with being foreign, an outsider, an other. He is vulnerable to a white supremacist group, who in a truly horrifying scene beat him to within an inch of his life, threaten to castrate him, then leave him broken and battered with white spray paint across his face.
And while it seems impossible, his identity crisis and desire to feel as though he belongs are exploited by that same group, whose leader is amused by the idea of having a black teenager as a mascot. So, incredibly, the Nigerian Eni becomes a member in good standing of a violent white power gang whose main activities involve intimidating and frequently issuing savage beatings to the black members of their community.
The problem with this film is two-fold. Firstly, the scenes of violence with Eni leading a cadre of white skinheads are so unrelentingly bleak and brutal that they lose some of their impact and become repetitive. There’s a constant barrage of ugliness and it’s especially important in films like this, which are so dark and negative, that there are brief moments of levity or hope. Farming doesn’t let the clouds part a bit to allow a ray of sunshine to come through until the very end of the film.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje is perhaps too close to the film and fails to fully appreciate what is so awe-inspiring about his story. We need to see his involvement in the white supremacist movement and everything that lead to it, of course, but what’s of far more interest is the impetus for him to decide to break with his gang and forge a new path. Farming would likely have benefitted from more fully examining the redemptive elements of his story, perhaps making that the third act of the film rather than just the last three minutes.
Farming features performances that range from competent to very strong (although it’s difficult not to feel that the always excellent Gugu Mbatha-Raw was criminally underutilized here), but ultimately fails to develop a nuanced tone in its portrayal of Enitan’s journey through white supremicist. Its intensity may be true to life, but it makes it difficult for viewers to remain emotionally engaged in a film that languishes in repetitively violent fight scenes for far too long.