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Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, British actor, director, and former fashion model photographed for Time Out London, promoting his film 'Farming'.
Photograph: Rob Greig

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is reclaiming his story

With ‘Farming’, his extraordinary new film about a black skinhead, the Hollywood star is revisiting his own painful past

Written by
Olly Richards

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje has been part of some surprising stories in his time. He was violent crime lord Mr Eko in ‘Lost’, Killer Croc in ‘Suicide Squad’ and a vicious killer in ‘Oz’ (he’s played a lot of killers). He’s appeared in a ‘Thor’ movie and popped up in ‘Game of Thrones’. But none of those fantastical narratives are half as startling as the one he’s turned into his directorial debut – his own. ‘Farming’ is an account of how, as a young black man, he became a white supremacist.

The actor-turned-filmmaker was born in 1967 to Nigerian parents. At barely six weeks old, he was given to a white foster family in Tilbury, Essex. The hope was that he’d have a better life, but these were the dark days of Enoch Powell and the National Front. His blackness made him unusual – and largely unwanted – in a very white town. ‘Every time I went out, I was reminded [that I was different],’ he says. ‘It didn’t matter how much you tried to assimilate. I remember walking to primary school and a policeman called me over. He smiled at me, then spat in my face and drove away. I’d done nothing.’ A whole childhood of abuse brought the teenage Akinnuoye-Agbaje to the horrifying decision to join a gang of skinheads. He hoped it would give him some protection.

Damson Idris (centre) as Enitan in Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s ‘Farming’.  Photograph Angus Young

‘I remember watching them clash with police,’ he says. ‘There was an area they used to hang out in and the police tried to move them on. They stood up to them and the police just walked away. I wanted that.’ Akinnuoye-Agbaje had gained a reputation for being able to ‘take a beating’, which is why the gang allowed him in. They could beat him up for their own entertainment. ‘When they’d encounter a rival gang, they’d throw me out as the opening act, to get kicked about. Each time it happened, I’d feel like there was a growing respect for what I could take. Obviously they never really accepted me.’

‘I wasn’t prepared for the flood of emotions it brought back’

Talking to him, it’s clear that dealing with the effects of the abuse he suffered, which led him to feel the only respect he deserved was for what he could endure, has been a long, and still ongoing, journey. ‘It’s a process of decades,’ he says. ‘I’m lucky that I’ve had a career that’s allowed me to process a lot of those emotions through different characters. Work has been my therapy.’

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje on the set of ‘Farming’. Photograph Angus Young 

Unsurprisingly, directing ‘Farming’ was an intense process. ‘Cathartic’ is the word he uses. There were scenes he knew would be difficult to film, like the first time he’s attacked by skinheads or the attempt to take his own life, but the one that most affected him took him by surprise. ‘It was the first time I walked into the recreation of the house I grew up in,’ he remembers. ‘It took me immediately back to being an eight-year-old boy. I wasn’t prepared for the flood of emotions it brought back.’

As you might expect from a directorial debut, ‘Farming’ is a little rough around the edges, but its emotional payload is significant. It’s a film of dark, hard feelings, messily ripped open. With it, Akinnuoye-Agbaje has not just come out of the other side of an appalling childhood, he’s seized back control of his story. It has to be seen to be believed.

‘Farming’ is out Fri Oct 11. Read our review here

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