Ghanaian-American filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu is having a very busy year.
She’s just hit the news with the recent acquisition of the exclusive rights to adapt Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s On Monday of Last Week, a short story from Adichie’s collection, The Thing Around Your Neck.
And this all happened after presenting her latest short film Reluctantly Queer at the Berlin international film festival, wrapping up Mahogany Too, starring Nigerian actress Esosa E. (the An African City actress) and working on her first fiction feature film Black Sunshine.
I caught up with Akosua just before she begins shooting the much-anticipated book-to-film adaptation to talk about her work, inspiration and the notion of African identity.
There were not many black women filmmakers around when you were growing up. When did you decide to be a filmmaker? Were you inspired by anyone in particular?
I can’t say that I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker. And, you’re right; I had very few black women filmmakers to look up to when I was starting out in film. Growing up, I’ve always been creative, but my parents wanted me to go the conventional route and become a doctor.
I started picking up filmmaking in college after taking cinematography classes from Kevin Jerome Everson at the University of Virginia. He was navigating the art world and was traveling to international film festivals so I looked up to him and wanted to do that too.
Generally speaking, black filmmakers are marginally represented in both mainstream and indie film. Having a mentor like Kevin was very influential on me because I was able to witness his process and experiences in the industry. Though he is a black man, we had our differences in opinions, style and approach, but he was and continues to be very important as a mentor.
I started having a clearer understanding of the types of films that I wanted to make.
Even still, he recognised that I was looking for a black woman to mentor me so he introduced me to his friend in New York, a prolific photographer Lorna Simpson, who was working in film and video in the art world.
When I was about 18, she invited me to visit her studio and home. She took the time to critique the experimental films I was making in college, while listening to me vent about how the art world was so hard for black people and black women. That brief moment hanging out with Lorna in my teens was a transformative experience for me – I started having a clearer understanding of the types of films that I wanted to make using blackness and black women as a focal point.
How did the idea of Reluctantly Queer (RQ) come about?
After living in Ghana for a few years promoting Kwaku Ananse and recovering from my attempts to Save the Rex Cinema in Accra, I decided to move back to the US and return to shooting in analogue film formats and producing projects at my own pace.
My friend from Ghana, Kwame was enrolled in a fellowship at the University of Virginia and writing his dissertation called ‘Reluctantly Queer’ about Ghanaian men, who identify as queer. I was creatively stuck and trying to distract myself from all the attention my feature, Black Sunshine was getting, so I visited Kwame in Virginia.
He has this unique way of communicating in writing that inspired me.
This was around Mother’s Day last year, so I asked him to write a personal letter to his mother and that’s how the film emerged. Reluctantly Queer is about Kwame’s struggles with his identity as queer and the tension that it stirs within his relationship with his mother in Ghana. At the time, I wanted to produce a new film, and somehow being in Virginia, where I’m from, with Kwame made the collaboration easy.
He has this unique way of communicating in writing that inspired me, and mirrored the way I tell stories in film. It was refreshing to collaborate with him at the University of Virginia where I started making films.
The issues you address (being a black man in America; rejection as a gay man in Africa…) in this film are very current and at the heart of social activism going on today. Why did you opt for black and white film (and a general vintage feel)?
I remembered shooting parts of my short film Me Broni Ba in black and white. I definitely wanted to make the film feel almost timeless and play on memory and letter writing. One of the first queer films that I was exposed to was Nitrate Kisses by Barbara Hammer. The film was beautifully shot on black-and-white film and it’s about various different lesbian couples. That was my first exposure to visual representations of queer love in film.
Kwame often references James Baldwin texts in his writing, specifically The Black Boy Looks at The White Boy. He creates links about his sexual identity to race, so I wanted to reference the James Baldwin text metaphorically using the black-and-white film.
I spent time revisiting the work of many black filmmakers.
Shortly after moving to Virginia from Ghana in 2014, I went on a residency for one week with the Afrosurrealist Society at Indiana University, which has the largest collection of black films in their Black Film Centre/Archive.
I spent time revisiting the work of many black filmmakers, who I look up to like John Akomfrah and Isaac Julien. I started binge-watching Marlon Riggs’ work accumulating inspiration so that I could visually communicate the ideas that Kwame expressed in his writing about queer identities.
Your prior works have been inspired by your own personal experience and struggles with identity. RQ however does not appear to be about you. Why have you chosen to work around someone else’s (Kwame Edwin Otu) story this time? How does it relate to you?
My films have been mostly about me, up until producing Reluctantly Queer. While living in Ghana, Kwame and I were inseparable to the point where, his family or even bystanders were inquisitive about our relationship and would think we were dating.
I began to question whether I was even qualified to make films on queer-related issues.
Making a queer-themed film was certainly not on my agenda. I remember joking with Kwame and telling him how I’m about to be 33, a heterosexual black woman, single and looking for a life partner and he has me coming out as ‘reluctantly queer’? I began to question whether I was even qualified to make films on queer-related issues, and, as a filmmaker who likes to challenge identity in my work, I realised that my films were also playing with ‘queer time’ by being experimental in form.
One of my goals for choosing to produce this film about Kwame was to test my abilities as a producer and a filmmaker, while putting a face to another African identity, one that is authentic to some African people. I’m sure there are a lot of queer Africans in Ghana and the diaspora, who can recognise themselves in Kwame’s story. I wanted to tell a complex story about African identity, and I chose to put a face on African queer identity by collaborating with Kwame with Reluctantly Queer. His experiences of being queer paralleled my experiences of being American and Ghanaian.
I felt a need to prove my Ghanaian side.
My past film work on ‘triple consciousness’ explores an all-inclusive space that addresses these collisions of identities and cultures. In Ghana, I was constantly challenged and confronted by my American-ness. I felt a need to prove my Ghanaian side in a society that rejects anything that is outside the norm. Kwame’s struggle with owning his sexuality in certain settings mirrored my struggle with my nationality in certain settings. This build up of anxieties would eventually get resolved in our collaboration for Reluctantly Queer.
The shower scene, which can also be seen in the trailer, is particularly striking. What do you want to convey with it?
The shower scene shows a black man lathering in white soap. This scene symbolises a transformation, from a black body to a white figure, then emerging a queer African man. With the black-and-white film, the shower scene takes on a sci-fi quality.
What tensions/struggles have you personally experienced as a first generation American raised in the US by Ghanaian parents? What is the most challenging? How do you reconcile these tensions?
As a first-generation American Ghanaian, the most challenging aspect would be choosing art and film for a career. It’s an unpredictable career path and there is no set of rules to become successful in the industry.
Through my film work, I try reconciling these tensions.
While living in Ghana, I recognised the cultural privilege that I have with being American, and in America I had to deal with having overbearing African parents. Through my film work, I try reconciling these tensions where I’m afforded the creative space to play and be creative with these anxieties.
Do you believe it is possible for members of the diaspora to ever find a place they truly feel at home or are we stuck in this more or less severe state of schizophrenia?
Well, I can’t really speak for everyone but I’m finding that there is universality to this desire of finding ‘home’. And, this severe state of schizophrenia and anxiety definitely plays out in my film work about personal experiences of being a Ghanaian and American.
Identity is not singular and I believe there is no singular notion of home. In the beginning, my filmmaking processes were about shooting in Ghana and on the continent of Africa, in search for my identity, and now I’ve resolved this existential crisis. I’ve learned that I was searching for a home in other people, collaborators and even romantic relationships.
I’ve been able to find a home in my work by making avant-garde, experimental and films about these anxieties and realising that the home I’m searching for is within me.
What do you think it will take for mentalities to change in Ghana and more generally in Africa about LGBT people?
That is a good question. I’m not sure what it will take for Ghanaians to change their mentality not just about LGBT-related issues but also about different types of people and identities in general. Post-colonialism has a lot to do with creating this fixed Eurocentric perception of authentic African identity. I believe while searching for our true African identity, Ghanaians have adopted this more Eurocentric identity as the norm.
I think people in Ghana are aware of same-sex desire and LGBTQAI issues, however, with the heavy influence of Christianity and religion, our society is conditioned to suppress sexual desires in general. So many people are forced to conceal their sexual preference because society doesn’t give them the space to express themselves. I thought it was associated with an American sub-culture.
The outrage I was anticipating didn’t happen.
The first time I saw two Ghanaian men holding hands, I asked my mom if they were gay and she told me that they were ‘just friends’. My reading of two men-holding hands was very ‘American’ even though my very ‘African’ mother saw it as a ‘friendly’ gesture in Ghanaian culture. The recent visibility of same-sex politics in Africa is reshaping definitions of masculinity in Ghana.
In the beginning, I was nervous about making Reluctantly Queer with Kwame because it was a new territory for me as a Ghanaian filmmaker representing Ghana on an international scale. I was already established in Ghana as the filmmaker of Kwaku Ananse now and I began to worry about folks thinking I’m gay. The outrage I was anticipating didn’t happen and there was excitement about the film’s selection for the Berlinale.
I hear you have been working on your first fiction feature film, Black Sunshine. This is very exciting. Can you tell me about it?
I’m working on my fiction feature debut and it’s been a process. The story is about an African woman, who has an albino daughter. She feels ashamed having given birth to an albino child, so she uses skin-bleaching products on her skin to feel close to her daughter. It’s a story about a mother and daughter and the difficulties and conflicts in their relationship and within their community.
Since I made Me Broni Ba in 2009, it seems like I’ve been talking about this ‘albino film’ forever! Especially now that issue of albinism and vitiligo in the context of Africa and black people are very relevant in the media right now. And, I’m working my way to finally returning to Ghana and directing it very soon. I feel all these short films I’ve been producing throughout the years and experiences that I have had are building me up to produce Black Sunshine.
What is your definition of success? What do you want to achieve the most?
My definition of success isn’t about the accolades and the awards, but being authentic and consistent in my work and opening audiences up to seeing other perspectives in film.
I want people to remember me for the types of films that I made.
I’m interested in leaving behind a legacy, one that I have inherited from my African ancestors, who were great and accomplished people, and achieving a body of film work that represents my beliefs and what I stand for.
I want people to remember me for the types of films that I made, hoping that they have some sort of cultural value, while creating social change on how we view race and identity in various spaces.
What would you tell aspiring African filmmakers out there?
I would tell any aspiring African filmmaker that filmmaking is a process and a collaborative medium, so you have to put in the work. The continent of Africa has a wealth of ideas with so many creative people waiting for opportunities. Discover what your creative journey is, stick to it, and allow success to find you.
What do think about diversity generally, and more specifically about the place of African films in international festivals? What’s your position on #OscarsSoWhite?
My presence at this year’s Berlinale can be a sign of diversity. This is my second year attending the festival, with the first time being from producing Kwaku Ananse in 2013. In all those step-and-repeat group photos, I was that only black director in the main shorts competition and even though I am a heterosexual woman, Reluctantly Queer was also in the Teddy Award category for queer-themed films.
When I participated in their Berlinale Talents Campus in 2008, in my final year of grad school, they’ve supported my work ever since. This year, I noticed that the Berlinale was very inclusive of black filmmakers and artists. While the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was happening in America, I was going to start a #BerlinaleSoBlack hash tag in Germany!
I noticed the Berlinale was premiering my work, along with the latest films by Kevin Jerome Everson, Spike Lee and Don Cheadle among other black filmmakers.
There is certainly change on the horizon.
Of course, my position on #OscarsSoWhite is that it’s true. However, Steve McQueen and Lupita’s win at the Oscars a few years ago is definitely a sign of improvement. To see a black man from the UK producing and directing a film that had an Oscar for the Best Picture award in the United States shows that there is certainly change on the horizon.
I hear you have some very exciting new projects coming up…?
I’m currently in post-production on a new short film called Mahogany Too, which is a Nollywood inspired re-interpretation of the Diana Ross film Mahogany from the 70s. The film stars Nigerian actress Esosa E., one of the actresses from the web series, An African City. Right around the time I was promoting Kwaku Ananse in Ghana, I randomly met Esosa in a local market and I recognised her from some of my film teacher’s films.
I’m really excited to translate Chimamanda’s words into film.
We decided to collaborate on a film together and Mahogany Too is a remix of our African and American metropolitan experiences. Also, I recently optioned the exclusive film adaptation rights for a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The film is called On Monday of Last Week and we’re shooting this July. I can’t comment much on it but I’m really excited to translate Chimamanda’s words into film.
How does On Monday of Last Week fit into your body of work?
Kwaku Ananse was my first adaptation of a Ghanaian fable, a semi-autobiographical interpretation of the folklore hero from Africa and the African diaspora. I decided to start adapting work from African literature. My films have been primarily re-positioning and restaging found footage with a poetic approach. This is my first film adaptation and second attempt at making a fiction film.
Check out Akosua’s work here