Shola Amoo’s The Last Tree, like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, powerfully focuses on the crisis in black masculinity, this time though the three-part story of a Nigerian boy growing up in Britain.
Rootsby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Femi (played by Tai Golding as a young boy) is living with a loving foster mother (Denise Black) in the idyllic, golden-lit Lincolnshire countryside. He’s the only black child in the rural community but that’s not an issue, he has friends, he plays football and he’s loved and happy. Then his Nigerian single mother Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo) takes him away – back to her 20th-floor council flat in a dismal part of London that she’s been getting ready for them to live together now that she has a job (two, in fact) and somewhere to live.
Suddenly, Femi is alone and lonely all day in an inner city flat with a mother he doesn’t know, who is always out working. He can only wistfully watch the boys playing football down below. He doesn’t know her Yoruba language and he’s reluctant for her to school him on his forgotten heritage. She behaves like a strict African parent, imposing housework, harsh respect and beatings on him. He hates her and misses his foster mum. When he starts school, for the first time for him all his classmates are black and streetwise, and they mock him for his African name.
At 16, Femi (now stunningly played by Sam Adewunmi) has learnt to fit in by joining the local bad guys, staying out late at night. He’s drawn into muggings and gang fights. His schoolwork suffers as a result and his black male teacher (Nicholas Pinnock) tries to provide a positive role model. Yet somewhere under the tough guy exterior Femi has had to cultivate, we can see his soul has not yet hardened. He still has pride left in himself and his identity in his protectiveness to a classmate (Ruthxjiah Bellenea), very dark-complexioned like him, who is picked on for being ‘blick’ – even in the community, there’s prejudice against being too black.
His mother takes him back to chaotic Lagos to find his father. In Nigeria he discovers a liberating Yoruba spirituality and also a new understanding of his mother’s life and the future she has tried to achieve for him, as far as she was capable.
The Last Tree is gripping and meaningful. In the film, trees are an understated but potent symbol of a life that is possible. The coming-of-age story director Shola Amoo tells is one that’s repeated over and over again in Britain and the US – young people who grow up caught between two cultures, not belonging in either and trying to find their own place. The liberating extra dimension Amoo adds is the trip back to Africa, to the source, and the sense of healing and wholeness that can bring with it.
The Last Tree premiered in the UK at Sundance London 2019 and is released on 20 September 2019 in the UK.