FOR MANY viewers, The Last Tree will be unlike anything they’ve seen before – at least when it comes to black British cinema and the narratives that have been on the big screen – and the way black experiences in Britain have been presented cinematically.
The story follows a Nigerian-British boy Femi who, after spending part of his childhood being cared for by a white foster carer in Lincolnshire, reluctantly reunites with his mother and moves to London.
Black viewers are rejoicing at the exposure to Amoo’s filmmaking and relating to Femi’s story in droves. Those who were placed with white foster families in the UK or fostered in communities that hugely contrasted to their own will connect with the protagonist’s journey on an acutely personal level. Black Britons will immediately identify with the experience of reconciling or wrestling with at least two distinct and often conflicting cultures, and audiences irrespective of their background will empathise with or recognise the identity struggle.
“It’s just deeply felt and the amount of people who’ve told me that, who I’ve seen [shed] tears…that kind of connection is really priceless. And it’s people who can talk to you for hours after the film, can keep you outside the theatre have an in depth discussion about how much they relate to it personally – and this is someone you’ve never met before. I think when you’re that authentic and you’re that specific and you have those universal themes, that’s where you can get to,” director Shola Amoo says.
“Femi’s breakthrough for me as a character comes from him understanding his past, understanding his roots, his past and the things that he doesn’t know at the start of the film and finding a kind of peace in the coalescence of all his different identities and the spaces that have contributed to who he is and I think that’s it’s one of the most empowering human things in terms of one understanding their identities, understanding where you came from to understand where you’re going,” Amoo adds.
“The way we’ve decided to tell the story aesthetically, the cinematic language, the scale – it’s like an odyssey”– Shola Amoo
The genuine feel of Amoo’s storytelling was one of the things that initially drew lead actor Sam Adewunmi to the project and the character of Femi.
“The authenticity of the story – I felt like I knew every single character in the script or I’ve met them in one way or another or experienced them in one way or another and so that was something that really jumped out to me. And I was like, this is different, this is really unique,” Adewunmi says.
In terms of subject matter, which is dense and multiplicious, The Last Tree covers a considerable amount of ground – and breaks it too.
Reflecting on the defining component of Femi’s upbringing, an experience shared by many others but not widely showcased, Adewunmi says: “I think the quite essential element of Femi being fostered was also really interesting to me. I don’t think I’d ever seen that represented on screen and maybe that’s my ignorance but I’m not sure that that’s been a prevalent story in British cinema.”
Visually, with soft and saturated juxtaposed with grittiness and clean lines, wide shots contrasted with extreme close ups, The Last Tree is also a breath of fresh air.
“The way we’ve decided to tell the story aesthetically, the cinematic language, the scale – it’s like an odyssey,” Amoo says.
Femi’s epic journey ends with a trip to Nigeria, something that was also a first for Adewunmi. Shooting on location in Lagos added an extra layer of authenticity to the story and Amoo’s commitment to this extended beyond the screen and into how he approached his work behind the scenes. When shooting in Nigeria, which he says was no more challenging than shooting in Lincolnshire or London, he enlisted a lot of locals into the crew, worked with Nigerian production company Film One.
“It was just a great way of bridging a kind of gap. It was always a dream to go home and film and make a film and it was great to do it in this film,” says Amoo.
“It’s very specific culturally, yes, but the scale of it isn’t small. It feels like you’re on a big journey, which isn’t the kind of foundation usually awarded to a lot of black British films to be frank, whether you want to call it that or not, and so it’s great to try and transcend that and make something that is operatic and feels like an odyssey but retain that specific thing that makes it authentic and makes it so moving to people,” Amoo adds.
A reoccurring theme in black British films and TV series is gang culture. There is some exploration of the impact that getting into the wrong crowd can have on black young boys living in London – Femi gets closely connected to Mace, a local badman, the viewer is not explicitly told what it is that Mace does but they are led to believe that it is both violent and illegal.
This vagueness was deliberate, Amoo says. His focus is more on the circumstances that can put young black men into situations where they are vulnerable to everything from underachieving to becoming involved in gangs.
Adewunmi was wholly on board with Amoo’s approach to including this narrative in the film and believes black boys and young men need patience and understanding, less judgement, less stereotyping and better representations in film, art, TV and the news.
“You always hear about the stories or the things that aren’t so positive but there are many people that are doing really positive things as well and also to understand that when the negative things are happening there is most likely a reason and a cause that led to that,” he says.
“I actually read the narrative more as an anti-gang narrative because we don’t see any drugs, or knives or guns or any of that. It’s all perception, it’s how you perceive everything so I think the film’s quite clever in subverting that,” Amoo says.
“Hopefully films like this can continue to be given the spotlight”– Sam Adewunmi
While the range of roles available to young black actors is improving there is still a long way to go. With this in mind, newcomer Adewunmi’s declaration that he feels blessed to be able to tell a story speaks to more than his joy at being immersed in the beauty and brutality of Amoo’s filmmaking.
“Hopefully films like this can continue to be given the spotlight because we’re more than the stereotypes that are constantly pushed in front of us. I was raised on a council estate in London, I ain’t ever been in a gang…but I know people that have and both of our stories are relevant,” he says.
“We know what’s been told over and over and over and I think it is important because you have to understand where these people come from and what not, but there’s also another side to being just young and black both within the element of gangs and also outside as well,” Adewunmi adds.
Despite the challenges that Femi faces throughout the film, there’s a strong sense of hope throughout. Likewise The Last Tree has the power to instil that hope in black audiences and filmmakers that there is space for other stories to be told, for all of our stories to be shared.
“For it to now be coming home and being shown here, that’s like the best thing we could have wished for – to get a cinema release – and hopefully young black people come and watch it but also people in general. Like I said, I think it’s a story, especially here in the UK, we’re not used to seeing and it’s one that definitely deserves some love.”
The Last Tree is now in cinemas. Find your nearest showing here.