Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje: The Unwavering Survivor
It was evening when Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje stepped into the lobby of a high-priced hotel in Lagos, Nigeria. His well-built frame and assured poise remind me that I am looking at the same man that held Tyrion & Sir Jorah hostage in the Emmy winning Games of Thrones series. Later in his suite, I would see him whistling Burna Boy’s smash hit, Anybody, as he prepared for his photoshoot.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje is a man who has carefully curated his image. He would later tell me that he is a private person.
“I wasn’t prepared for the invasion of my privacy – that comes with fame. I moved back to England for some time, where I could keep my anonymity and still do my work.”
A man with a powerful story, his story is of one who took the script that life handed to him, rewrote and converted it into a film.
Inspired by his traumatic childhood – a cocktail of rejection, racism and identity crisis – Akinnuoye-Agbaje wrote and directed the biopic film, Farming.
Farming is “a personal story but at the same time, it’s a story that illuminates the phenomenon that happened to thousands of Nigerian children” in Britain in the 1960s, ‘70s to ‘80s.
In 1967, Akinnuoye-Agbaje was born in London to Nigerian parents who had left Nigeria to study in Britain. Six weeks after his birth, his parents left him in the care of a white working-class family in the slum docking town of Tilbury in Essex, in south-east England. He never saw his biological parents again until he was eight years old.
In the foster home, Akinnuoye-Agbaje lived with about 10 other African children, including his two sisters. The house was run by his foster mother. His foster father, a lorry driver, was rarely at home.
Growing up as a black kid in Tilbury, Akinnuoye-Agbaje barely experienced love, inside his foster home or outside of it. A part of this is because his foster parents shouted racial slurs at him.
In an interview with The Guardian UK, he recalls his first memories when he was starting school.
“The sun was shining and the first autumn leaves were beneath my shoes and I was walking with all the other kids to St Mary’s primary. A police car was on the side of the road and the policeman called me over. He half-smiled at me. And then he spat in my face and drove off. I looked around and the sun was still shining, children were walking by and I just remember that hot saliva on my face. I had to carry on going to school.”
Akinnuoye-Agbaje was an easy pick for bullies. He had dogs set on him and bricks thrown at him. His father would force him back out on the streets to stand up on his own. He gave him two choices: fight back or get a beating from him.
When he was eight, his biological parents showed up and took him back to Nigeria. It didn’t end well as he was overwhelmed by a brutal cultural shock and inability to adjust to the new “foreign” environment. Unable to speak the local language, Akinnuoye-Agbaje was so traumatised that he stopped speaking. Concerned by the sudden withdrawal, his [birth] parents sent him back to live in Tilbury.
Back in Tilbury, Akinnuoye-Agbaje was a boy lost in-between two unwelcoming worlds; his native home country in Africa whose culture he couldn’t assimilate and the white populated town of Tilbury whose racist attitude made him a constant target of attacks.
After years of systematic torment from Skinheads with nowhere left to run and being forced to constantly stand his ground, Akinnuoye-Agbaje earned a reputation and eventually joined his oppressors – the Skinheads.
The skinhead subculture originated among working-class youths in London, England in the 1960s. They were recognisable by their clothes – defined by their close-cropped or shaven heads and working-class clothing such as Dr Martens and steel toe work boots, braces, high rise and varying length straight-leg jeans, and button-down collar shirts, usually slim fitting in check or plain.
By the 1970s, things changed as Skinheads became synonymous with extreme nationalist, racist, and anti-immigration attitudes.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje became a black skinhead; always getting in trouble for fighting and shoplifting. When his parents learned of this, they decided to send him to a private boarding school in Surrey.
In Surrey, young Akinnuoye-Agbaje sunk into despair and ultimately attempted to take his own life…
Grab a copy of The Guardian Life magazine today to read the full interview.