Bold Culture: How do you identify?
Melissa Adeyemo: I believe I am Nigerian and American in every sense, so I traditionally identify as Nigerian-American and, if not that, African-American. I am Newark-born, and while not fully bred there, it is what I consider to be my hometown. Newark, New Jersey gave me a sense of pride in my Black identity that being Nigerian also gave me.
BC: How did you get your start?
MA: I got my start in film, though not specifically the entertainment industry, when I was working for Spike Lee. I came back from Senegal after studying abroad for five months and was really looking for a job in film, since I had studied intra-national distribution on the African continent and I got to meet with Ousmane Sembène’s (1923-2007) producer.
When I came back to New York City I had already decided not to work in traditional news and journalism after interning in it for two years, so I decided to switch to film. An internship went out for the Inside Man on Columbia University’s listserv and I applied and got it. I worked my butt off. I lived in Jersey and was supposed to get in at 7am, but I was taking the earliest bus I could get. If I didn’t get in exactly at a certain time I’d miss the train and instead of getting in at 7, I would get in at 7:05 or 7:15. It was crazy. I worked on that for months and essentially begged, borrowed, and stole my way to a production assistant job that then got another production assistant job through the unit production manager on the first film, which happened to be Steven Spielberg’s Munich.
I have worked in the entertainment and media sector my entire career. I worked with a company called Iroko Partners in Nigeria, then I got a full scholarship to NYU. I knew I wanted to be a film producer, so I indentured myself to all the Tisch students. A few people eventually wrote to me to produce and one of my shorts went to the Dubai International Film Festival. It was a film from a young woman, S’arra Alshehhi. Nobody was checking for her but I felt like she had a real cool vibe. She was hard working and she knew what she was trying to make, so I just followed it.
My career has been very blessed in that way. I ran into opportunities or created them, and those opportunities have built into other things. I still don’t know if I am out here building relationships in the most traditional way, since my career is so different from most people’s I see. But I guess it is mine and like me, it tends to shirk convention.
BC: What are the intersections of Nollywood and Black Hollywood in terms of inspiration, storylines, and audience?
MA: The go-getter-ness of it is where the intersections are. I mean it in the way that the American film industry can birth Tyler Perry. In the Nigerian film industry, while you don’t yet have anyone at that scale of revenue or content generated, you do have people who are at that level of ambition and desire to break through. That is an element of commonality. These industries share the spirit that no one is going to be mitigated. We are not going to ask permission. We are going to make our own tables.
When I think of how Eyimofe came about, it was definitely with that ethos. It is a standard art-house film, but because we are African and Nigerian specifically, there is a disbelief that we could make it happen. That film was entirely financed in Nigeria and we had something to prove.
That quiet determination, steely resolve, is very specific to Black Americans and Nollywood, as differentiated from Black people anywhere else in the world. I think Black people elsewhere have to wait for people to co-sign their efforts, because the populations of Black people are much smaller, younger and the societal conversations around race are much more nascent. But I am encouraged by the push I am seeing in the UK from Black creators. I am interested to see what comes out of that industry in a few years.
BC: How did you start your production company and why?
MA: I needed to organize what I was doing in the film industry. There was a legal aspect to it, but then there was this need to create this space to talk about Black people, globally. Black people who were in-between. Those who aren’t fully African or fully from one place. You are in-between. I know people who are seventh-generation African American, but I also know first-gen and second-gen Caribbean Americans and folks from the UK who studied there for 12 to 15 years. They don’t fit the same parameters of having their entire life be back home in Nigeria and I really wanted to speak about their experiences. And, it’s not to say that I don’t want to focus on African people. I really do and will. My goal is to be telling stories both here and there. I wanted to adhere to the ethos of telling global stories about Black people—regardless of nationality. I really just want to be telling compelling and nuanced stories about us.
BC: What do you think has been unique about your journey in film?
MA: I was talking with girlfriends recently about how I created my own major when I went to Columbia College; it was because I had a very clear idea of what success was for me. But more than that, I really am interested in making my own way. This usually means creating my own path because I hate parameters. They feel like constricting walls to me to be honest, so I find myself always looking to create my own paths. I love new territory and blank slates.
I think that comes from being a Black person having gone through predominantly White institutions. I remember being one of those Black people who got into trouble for something. Nothing big, but I got suspended in boarding school. When you’re in boarding school, you can lose certain privileges when that happens. I was a prefect and I lost that. I was on the Disciplinary Committee and I lost that. I had all these markers of achievement and I lost them. I was 17 years old, so all I wanted was to go back to being seen as the good girl. Before the decision came down, I will say a lot of my teachers and even the Dean of schools went to bat for me against the other Dean at the time, but the Dean refused and I lost all those things. Later, I came to find out that some of my other classmates (many of whom were wealthy and white) were getting away with murder and not suffering the same consequences. I went to college depressed because this fact had shifted my whole worldview. It started the shift in my identity, really.
In my youth, I was that Black girl who wanted to make sure white people felt safe around me or that I checked all these superficial boxes to “other” myself, to make myself someone of distinction in their eyes. Not consciously, but definitely understanding that achieving societal monikers of success would benefit that end. In a lot of ways, especially in my thirties, I have come out on the other side as someone who is adamantly opposed to that—not the accolades—so much as the attempt to make others feel safe. Obviously, that was a hard course correction that I had to figure out on my own, but having that happen in high school, I was trying to define myself in college in a way that was free of fear of judgement or concern.
Even today, I am still trying to get free. In hindsight, I think I have battled against this aspect of my personality—this desire to just forge my own destiny. It took me about 20 years to figure that out about myself and be at peace with the fact that this is who I am. These paradigms and societies are not built for us to be successful. Once I knew that, I stopped trying so hard to achieve for the benefit of someone else’s idea of me. I realized you could follow all the rules and still lose at a higher level than everybody else, so the first part of my career has been me saying “I’m out,” with several hiccups along the way.
BC: What’s next for you creatively?
MA: I have a few things I am working on creatively. I have two feature films that are gaining traction. One is by a writer and director I worked with in the past, her name is Abbesi Akhamie. We are looking to do a film in Nigeria called In my Father’s House. The other is called Dusty and Stones, a film about Swaziland [now eSwatini] country singers in their journey to America and back. The documentary will actually be my next film release. Then, I have a television show, called Fever: The Little Willy John. I’m also working on a film short called “Choices,” that should be wrapping soon. And, I have a few other projects in negotiation. I’m not sure how that’s all going to work out, but I am working with a female Nigerian producer, Chioma Onyenwe, who I am really excited about.
BC: You recently just distributed your first feature film, Eyimofe. What is the film about and what distinguishes it from other films these days?
Yes, my first feature film, Eyimofe, is out in theaters right now through Janus Films, the theatrical distribution arm of the Criterion Collection. The film is about two people, Mofe and Rosa, who are attempting to emigrate from Nigeria to greener pastures in Europe. It follows their journey in trying to do so all while in Nigeria.
I think there is a lot that distinguishes it from other films but, it is my first film baby, so I am biased. I can tell you that we shot on 16MM film, which hadn’t been done in quite a long time. Generations, really. I believe we are the first Nigerian narrative feature to be a part of the Berlinale. We have gone on to premiere at over 20+ festivals including Torino Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival, New Directors, New Films, San Francisco Film Festival and many others. We are definitely one of the first Nigerian films to achieve theatrical distribution nationally in the United States—not including those films that have self-distributed or worked with localized distributors in specific cities. This is one of the first Nigerian films to crossover in this all-inclusive way. There have definitely been films that have done the festival route—gone on to premiere at major film festivals—Toronto International Film Festival, specifically. I don’t believe they achieved theatrical distribution though.
I know how that sounds and my point in saying some of this is not to big our film up at the sake of others. These things aren’t about being better than the other, but about showcasing the steps films are taking to further broaden our industries and the prospects of the filmmakers that come behind us. Even though Eyimofe had this major success at the Berlinale, shortly after us, a short film named Lizard made by London based Nigerian, Akinola Davies, premiered at Sundance and won the short film Grand Jury Prize for the film Lizard at the same festival. That is progress and it is so encouraging to see. I want more of that. I want Nigerian and black films that premiere at Cannes, Venice, Locarno, Sundance—all the majors. I want worldwide theatrical distribution. I want our people to create shows that are as successful as Lupin and Law & Order.
When I think about our film, Eyimofe, I think of it as a moniker of success that people can use to show how far you can go.