SHOLA AMOO challenges perceptions of the black British films and experience and the with this heart-wrenching and thought-provoking offering.
The Last Tree is a semi-autobiographical feature that fuses fiction and the real life story of its director, who himself was fostered. Shot on location in Lincolnshire, London and Nigeria, The Last Tree covers much ground both geographically and metaphorically with everything from cultural conflict, the Black-British identity and colourism to gang culture, single motherhood and the importance of black male teachers explored. Impressively, Amoo treats each with care, managing to incorporate numerous complex topics without it making it come across as a box ticking exercise.
The main story is told through the acting of newcomer Sam Adewunmi, who delivers a standout performance as Femi. Femi’s life changes dramatically when he moves to London with his mother (Gbemisola Ikumelo) after enjoying much happier and trouble-free times in the countryside with foster carer Mary (Denise Black).
On his move to London, Femi is confronted by both the brutality of living in the city – claustrophobic council estate architecture contrasts with the abundant freedom of the countryside – and the brutality of his mother’s parenting – in her attempts to discipline him she beats him and raises her voice. Having grown up with a white foster carer, a young Femi (Tai Golding) struggles to settle into the ways akin to his heritage – his face turning up at Nigerian cuisine cooked by his mother and initially rebelling at his responsibility to keep the house clean while she is away at work.
The upheaval, difficulties in the relationship he has with his mother and his longing for a functional family life make a teenage Femi vulnerable to making the wrong type of connections. This is an area that some viewers may feel could be explored further but Amoo is purposely vague about. It is effectively a blip and Femi is part saved by a teacher (Nicholas Pinnock) who can empathise with his battles and goes the extra mile to get him back on track.
Extreme close ups and sound distortion further immerse viewers in an already intense feature. Amoo’s choice of shots also have the double effect of celebrating black skin and features on the big screen.
There is a wonderful symmetry that underpins Adewunmi’s and Femi’s experiences – the trip to Nigeria is a first for them both. Notably, considering how Femi wrestles with reconciling his Nigerian and British identity in the UK, in his ancestral homeland while he has periods of discomfort he is largely at home – finding his feet playing football with young locals and himself participating in traditional rituals.
Just as Femi is awakened by his trip to Nigeria, The Last Tree opens eyes to how varied the black experience in Britain is.
The Last Tree is released in cinemas today. Find out where it’s showing here.