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Bola Agbaje: The write stuff

TOP FORM: Bola Agbaje

I FIRST met award-winning UK playwright Bola Agbaje on set in 2002 while filming the TV adaptation of writer Courttia Newland's A Society Within.

We had both been cast as members of a girl gang terrorising a south London estate - I was the ringleader, Leonora.

Though none of us pursued a career on screen, we both found solace in the pen, Bola as a playwright, me as a journalist.

She laughs heartily as I recall our first major experience in film.

“I always thought I was going to be an actor,” she says. “I bet you probably thought the same.”

She's right, I did.

“Being a writer wasn't a life-long ambition or something I thought about as a kid, but it was out of frustration of never feeling represented,” she says.

“You have a lot of people venting on Twitter about black characters on TV being 'stereotypical' and complaining about representation, but we need more people considering the unconventional roles in the arts, like writing, directing and even commissioning as opposed to roles in front of the camera.”

Bola's first play, Gone Too Far! premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2007 and won her the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliated theatre.

The play, which drew on Bola's Nigerian background and London upbringing, followed the lives of several young black people living on a London council estate and the numerous tensions and conflicts between the various identities, namely Nigerian, British, Caribbean, white, mixed-race and Asian.

It received overwhelmingly positive reviews and was then revived at a number of theatres the following year, including the Albany Theatre and The Hackney Empire.

Bola then announced that her work would be adapted into a feature film “slightly different from the play.”
“As Gone Too Far! was set in 2007, there are certain issues I feel have already been presented on screen before, so I took out a lot of things and made it a straight comedy.

“Hopefully people will come to see it and say, 'actually, I can make a film starring black kids and not have to call it an 'urban' comedy. I can make a comedy that is going to compete with the likes of Hangover Part II and cast people who look like me.’”

Gone Too Far! the film, directed by Destiny Ekaragha, premiered at the 2013 BFI London Film Festival. It was also shown in Ireland and Toronto - receiving rave reviews in both locations, a feat that surprised even Bola.

“I was shocked! You're told so many times that something isn't going to work somewhere that you start to believe it yourself.

“Then it is screened in Ireland and you go, 'wait a minute, people are people! Everyone understands emotion.”

She admits that as a black writer it has been an uphill struggle to get her work on wider platforms, admitting that many production companies have “dangled a carrot” offering her the world, in exchange for her watering down her content to appeal to the masses.

“I can't tell you how proud we were when we realised we were going to get this film made because there were times when people wanted us to betray our integrity and offered us backing if we changed 'XYZ', but we stayed true to the script.

She adds: “It's still a struggle to get things made, especially when you're talking about black characters and you're not trying to make them stereotypical. As we know, the industry likes to churn out the same things over and over again. They like to stick to a formula that works.

“Filmmaking is a massive risk and people have to be willing to put up a lot of money and take a risk on new talent. That's why somewhere like the British Film Institution (BFI), who funded the film, is so good.”

Another cause for celebration, aside from Bola being one of the lucky few to get her first feature backing from such a large and reputable organsation, was that it also showcased the talents of Destiny Ekaragha, the film's director.

“What's really amazing is that Destiny is the third black female to direct a feature film in the UK, that's terrible! I'm a first-time screenwriter and Destiny is a first-time director so we needed an organisation, like a government-funded body to say, 'here's the talent we've got in this country, let's support it.' Right now, for black directors in particular, the opportunities are just not there.”

Eager for a permanent change in mindsets, Bola hopes that her play Belong, a follow-up to Gone Too Far! will also one day be adapted for screen - this time with Hollywood star Forest Whitaker at the helm.

“I would love Forest to direct Belong. He is so underrated and people don't see the extent of how hard he works or the scope of his portfolio. He just silently moves.”

Even with Hollywood in her sights, Bola says it still remains important for her to stick to her roots.

“I find it really frustrating when people who have reached a certain level or stage in their career fail to talk about their past. Your past and your roots is something that should be celebrated. When my parents came here (from Nigeria), their whole mindset was to survive and provide for their family. But for our generation, we're allowed to dream and embrace the idea that we can be anything we want to be regardless of our past.”

Gone Too Far! the film will be released later this year. For more information, follow @BolaAgbaje on Twitter

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