×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Toronto Film Review: ‘Farming’

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's painfully autobiographical directorial debut about a black member of a white skinhead gang in '60s London.

Director:
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
With:
Damson Idris, Kate Beckinsale, John Dagleish, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jaime Winstone, Genevieve Nnaji, Zephan Amissah, Tom Canton, Theodore Barklem-Biggs.

1 hour 47 minutes

What if the black protagonist of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” was not a cop infiltrating a racist institution in order to bring it down, but a true believer finding a violent outlet for a psychological Molotov cocktail of internalized racism and pathological self-loathing? This is, roughly speaking, the extraordinary premise of British actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s directorial debut “Farming,” which is based with queasy authenticity on his own experiences as a teenage member of a 1980s white skinhead gang in Tilbury, Essex.

Unremittingly, bludgeoningly bleak in its portrayal of his own degradation and humiliation, and displaying only a passing interest in his eventual rehabilitation, the film is remarkable for its lack of self-pity, but it makes the experience of “Farming” a merciless one for the audience too. The process by which a young boy can be turned inside-out against his own skin is scary; scarier still is the sense that deprogramming this mindset, undoing this damage, and holding the guilty to account is the work of at least a lifetime, and it may never be complete.

The term “farming” was the peculiar euphemism given to the practice, prevalent in 1960s and ’70s England, whereby working or studying Nigerian parents would pay white British families to foster their children. And so the film opens with Femi (Akinnuoye-Agbaje playing his own father) and Tolu (Genevieve Nnaji) tearfully handing over their infant son Enitan and a wad of banknotes to Ingrid Carpenter (Kate Beckinsale), a working-class wife from a Gypsy background, living in a terraced house in Tilbury.

The setting — the exact house in which Akinnuoye-Agbaje grew up — convinces in a way that Beckinsale cannot, even with her fine-boned beauty toned down in a frumpy housecoat, and a broad cockney accent flattening her vowels. But that might also be down to the irresolute portrayal of Ingrid, sometimes a monster, sometimes a Fagin-like figure, and sometimes an admirably steel-willed, working-class woman, struggling her way out of poverty while trying to do what she believes is best for the kids. Eni’s parents’ are similarly fuzzily drawn, their lack of contact with him despite their living nearby never satisfyingly explained.

As a boy, Enitan (Zephan Amissah) is artistic but shy, preferring to play behind the sofa rather than with his siblings (whom his parents also “farm”) and foster-siblings; at times Ingrid has as many as 10 black children in her erratic care. Suffering constant low-level racism at home, with Ingrid repeatedly threatening to send him back to “Wooga-Wooga Land” if he misbehaves, and the object of ceaseless bullying at school, Eni learns to hate his blackness. In one heartbreakingly horrible scene, he tries to scrub it off his skin before covering himself in whitening talcum powder paste, the ghostly, freakish result only occasioning more derision from his peers.

As a teenager, Eni (now played with bruised, brooding intensity by Damson Idris), still friendless except for the kindly ministrations of saintlike teacher Ms. Dapo (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), becomes the target of more overt violence, specifically falling afoul of the self-dubbed “Tilbury Skins,” a skinhead gang led by Levi (John Dalgleish). In the most literal example of the “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality, he goes from Levi’s victim to his barely tolerated “pet” in the profoundly misbegotten belief that if he can outmatch them in the viciousness of his racial hatred, he will have found a tribe to which he can belong.

With a more dexterous screenplay, Akinnuoye-Agbaje would have been uniquely placed not only to deliver acute insights into the self-loathing on which the whole right-wing, skinhead mentality is based, and the skewed, animalistic logic of the bullied boy who becomes a bully in order to survive, but also a stinging indictment of the systemic racism that persists today in Brexit-era Britain. But while it never stints on depicting the mental and physical horrors inflicted on and by Eni, including several scenes of borderline unwatchable psychological torture, “Farming” falls oddly shy of pointing the finger of blame anywhere except at Levi’s snarling, repulsive villain.

There are searching questions never asked about the whole wretched system, whereby separating children from their immigrant parents was seen as a viable, even a charitable act. The underlying colonialist, “assimilationist” bigotry there — the idea that even being one of a dozen neglected and abused children in a poverty-stricken white household would have been preferable to growing up within a black family — goes largely unexamined. Indeed, with Eni’s redemption confined to a hasty montage and some titles describing how he went on to earn his law degree (culminating in a photo of the real Akinnuoye-Agbaje accepting his honors from a member of the Royal Family), the real hurt done to him and to thousands of other black British children, feels distressingly unresolved. If “it takes a village to raise a child,” as his grandfather says during Eni’s abortive trip back to Nigeria, then surely to break one so comprehensively must take a whole, complicit society.

Toronto Film Review: 'Farming'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 9, 2018. Running Time: 107 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Logical Pictures, Metalwork Pictures presentation, in association with Hanway Films, of a Groundswell Productions, Montebello Productions, AAA Studios production. (Int'l sales: HanWay Films, London.) Producers: Michael London, Janice Williams, Francois Ivernel, Andrew Levitas. Executive producers: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Ostrander, Richard Abend, Fréderic Fiore, Eric Tavitian, Marie-Gabrielle Stewart.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Camera (color, widescreen): Kit Fraser. Editor: Tariq Anwar. Music: Ilan Eshkeri.

With: Damson Idris, Kate Beckinsale, John Dagleish, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jaime Winstone, Genevieve Nnaji, Zephan Amissah, Tom Canton, Theodore Barklem-Biggs.

More Film

  • Murder Mystery

    Netflix Reveals Record-Breaking Stats for Sandler-Aniston 'Murder Mystery' Flick

    “Murder Mystery,” the latest Adam Sandler film to debut on Netflix, broke viewing records on the streaming service, the company revealed Tuesday. The film, which is co-headlined by Jennifer Aniston, was seen by close to 30.9 million households in its first 3 days, according to a tweet sent out Tuesday afternoon. 🚨ADAM SANDLER AND JENNIFER [...]

  • Agents Accuse Writers Guild of Refusing

    Writers Guild 'Plans to Respond' to Agents' Proposal as Frustration Mounts

    In a sign of increasing frustration, Hollywood agents have accused the Writers Guild of America of foot-dragging in the bitter two-month dispute. “It has become clear as more days pass that the Guild is not interested in making a deal,” said the negotiating committee for the agents in statement issued Tuesday. “Over the past year, [...]

  • Jermaine Fowler arrives at the 69th

    Jermaine Fowler to Co-Star With Eddie Murphy in 'Coming 2 America' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jermaine Fowler is set to play one of the leads opposite Eddie Murphy in Paramount’s sequel “Coming 2 America,” sources tell Variety. “Hustle & Flow” helmer Craig Brewer is on board to direct the pic with the studio planning an August 7, 2020 release. Plot details of “Coming 2 America” are unknown, as are the [...]

  • Henry Golding attends the Fragrance Foundation

    Henry Golding Starts Long House Shingle With 'Inheritance,' 'Harrington's Greatest Hits'

    “Crazy Rich Asians” star Henry Golding has started Long House Productions in partnership with China’s Starlight Cultural Entertainment Group with two features in the works. Golding’s first feature under the Long House banner is action adventure “The Inheritance,” based on an original story idea by Alistair Hudson and Golding. Hudson is writing the script for [...]

  • Max Landis Entertainment Weekly party, Comic-Con

    Max Landis Accused of Rape, Assault and Psychological Abuse

    Screenwriter Max Landis is facing allegations of sexual abuse and psychological manipulation from eight women who told their stories to the Daily Beast. Two of the women spoke on the record, and another five were identified by pseudonyms. An eighth women confirmed that she filed a police complaint against Landis in 2008, in which she [...]

  • Michael Fassbender'X-Men: Dark Phoenix' film premiere,

    Michael Fassbender to Produce, Star in Lionsgate Spy Thriller 'Malko'

    Michael Fassbender will produce and star in the Lionsgate spy thriller “Malko,” based on Gerard de Villiers’ S.A.S. series, with the studio planning to launch a franchise with the project. Eric Warren Singer, who was nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay for “American Hustle,” will write the screenplay. Joe Drake, chairman of [...]

  • American Film Institute Hires Susan Ruskin

    Susan Ruskin Appointed AFI Conservatory Dean

    The American Film Institute has named producer and educator Susan Ruskin as dean of the AFI Conservatory, where she will lead AFI’s graduate film-training program. Ruskin, who will also carry the title of executive VP, will report directly to Bob Gazzale, AFI President and CEO, the organization announced Tuesday. She replaces producer Richard Gladstein, who left [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content