Upcoming short film explores what it means to be a first generation Nigerian-American
We're in the middle of 2016 and experiencing a boom in black film and TV. There is a wide array of stories being told about the black experience ranging from dramas like Underground, comedies such as Blackish and even a glimpse into black religious beliefs with Greenleaf . Even the film industry is under the reigns of black greatness thanks to great innovators like Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay
Nigerian entertainers such as John Boyega, Uzo Aduba and David Oyelowo, just to name a few, are killing the game in Hollywood. What about the countless narratives from the perspective of first generation Nigerian-Americans? How often do we get a close-up glimpse of what it means to have a taste of both worlds? Not very often. An upcoming short film is doing its part to dive into the narrative of this unsung group of talented creators and entertainers. Yemi's Dilemma produced by Flower Ave. Films gives a broad scope of Nigerian family life from the perspective of three sisters. Sade Oyinade is writer and director, along with producing partner Deshawn Plair. The short film is in development, and Oyinade gave Blavity a bit of insight on its inspiration as it pertains to life as a first generation American with African parents
Oyinade says the short film follows the traditions of Nigerian culture but also brings a universal thread about, "love, relationships, and overcoming family strife"
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Here's a synopsis:Yemi’s Dilemma is the story of three sisters, a wedding and a family torn apart because of it. The sisters are first generation Nigerian-American. The eldest, Yemi, is expected to marry a Nigerian man, but she's keeping a huge secret from her traditional Nigerian parents that will forever change the dynamic within the family for better and for worse
Oyinade found inspiration for the compelling story of Yemi's character through her own personal experiences
"I grew up with 2 sisters and was immersed in both the Nigerian and American cultures, which creates a very different existence and perspective that I noticed varied from my friends’ experiences. I really wanted to share that different perspective of American life," she said. "It is also inspired by the different relationships I’ve seen that were intercultural and the difficulties faced as a result. Being able to just be with the person you want can at times be taken for granted. Marriage across race or ethnicity and sometimes religion can lead to people cutting off members of their family for long periods of time or for good." Growing up primarily in the D.C. area, she watched her navigate parents navigate life with new American customs but also keeping their native traditions alive through their children
"Both my parents came to this country, got their education while working so I’ve never known any other way but to be a hard-working person. I enjoyed the food, the music, the tight-knit culture but at the same time grew up with a lot of American traditions and most of my friends were African-American." Being a Nigerian-American, Oyinade shared a few of the struggles such as missing out on the connection with extended family because of the distance on another continent. She recalls growing up and having the burden of "not being Nigerian" enough
"I’ve been made to feel that I wasn’t Nigerian enough for some Nigerians – teased about the way I speak, not knowing Yoruba or practicing the proper way you greet people. For the longest time, I would be leery about meeting other Nigerians because I met people, including family, who said things that made me feel 'not good enough'," she recalled. She admitted that the grass wasn't always so greener on the other side. "And then among African-Americans, I don’t get teased and fit in easier but there’s a lack of understanding of my background because some of the shared experience I’d have with Nigerians or other Africans is missing – from the way our families behave, funny stories about our parents, normal traditional practices, etc. Friends try to lend an ear but it can be hard for them to help with certain situations or to even relate at all because the foundation of our backgrounds is just different," she said. "Plus they’d have experiences growing up that I had no clue about." Soon enough, Oyinade came to acknowledge the beauty of both worlds. "It took a while to not feel frustrated by the feeling of not fitting in but as I got older, I embraced it because it meant I had two different cultures to pull from and I see things very differently than most so that’s pretty awesome to me. I have great Nigerian friends, African friends, African-American friends, and I’m grateful for that." No matter your culture or upbringing, there is a tendency well into our adult years to want to carry the burden of our parents expectations. With the main character Yemi, Oyinade says the story isn't exactly about the stress of wedding planning, instead the pressure of living up to her parents' traditional ways. The story is all too common for one of Oyinade's sisters
"One of my sister’s is married to someone who isn’t Nigerian (or African) and that was a challenging time for my family. Also, I’ve met many people, Africans, Indians and in some cases Americans, who were in similar situations themselves, resulting in being blackballed from their families for a period of time, which is a very difficult things to experience. Often it’s hard for many people to understand or believe." The indie film comes with a strong team. Actress Constance Ejuma has been cast in the lead role as Yemi. The cast also includes Akbar Gbajabiamila, co-host of American Ninja Warrior. He'll also serve as the film's executive producer. Yemi's Dilemma also brings along Hollywood veteran, Sheryl Lee Ralph as the family matriarch. But don't expect to see her as your average, run of the mill overprotective mother. Oyinade sought out to bring a diverse cast of both African and African-American actors
"Sheryl Lee Ralph is a phenomenal actress and isn’t playing just any mother. She is a mother grappling with many things. She is protective of her children and her culture. She’s following what she knows and has believed in her whole life, which is a more insular world where for the sake of the families, you stay within your own. She’s left her home country years ago but it is important for her to stay connected to it. It may seem old school to some, but marriage is rooted in traditional values and beliefs about families working together, solving conflict together, etc. and that is seen as most effectively done with people who are like you, speak your language and understand your ways." Oyinade's first short film, Who Do You Know?, explored the harrowing consequences of unprotected sex and the stigma of HIV. As an independent filmmaker, Oyinade makes it a mission with Yemi's Dilemma to look at the complexities of relationships in the black community
"Some of what happens when people do things outside of the cultural norms or what your family expects of you, how painful it can be which is another reason I wanted to tell this story. Most of my friends never believe some of the stories I’ve told them because it’s so far from what they could imagine. Overall, I like to tell stories that resonate with my community which is both American and African so these two stories are more similar in that regard – both stories about serious issues that face my communities." In the film and entertainment industries, Nigerian-American creators aren't always in the spotlight for their work or accomplishments. With lack of diversity being an ongoing theme in Hollywood, the tide is slowly turning and bringing about ways of inclusion
Growing up, Oyinade was not exposed to Nigerian filmmakers. Living in Los Angeles today, she's found like-minded industry professionals with the African Artists' Association
"It’s only been more recently that the film industry in Nigeria, “Nollywood”, has exploded opening up opportunities and the eyes of people who thought the primary viable careers were in law, medicine or business," she said
Naturally, she was expected to go a more traditional route, eventually climbing the ranks as co-executive producer on TV One's critically acclaimed show, Unsung. As for her parents, they weren't too pleased with her initial decision to become a producer but she found her way along with their support
"But I’ve always had a love for TV and film and knew by the end of high school, despite my parents’ disapproval, I had to go for it. Growing up I admired director Spike Lee and just knew I was going to be a powerhouse producer like Jerry Bruckheimer! I’ve also been a longtime admirer of Gina Prince-Bythewood, along with Ava DuVernay and Kathryn Bigelow. And more recently Andrew Dosunmu, who directed Mother of George." Just like African-American actors, Africans are pigeonholed into stereotypical roles. As a filmmaker on both sides of the fence culturally, Oyinade is doing her part to change the narrative and hopes others can do the same. She says one of her greatest strengths is working with actors, admitting that it is one of her favorite aspects of filmmaking. "How often does an African actor actually see a casting notice for a fully-realized character that is actually African? Sure there are often notices for the evil dictator, feared army leader or refugees fleeing a city. Rarely in those cases are the characters fully developed," Oyinade noted. "Thankfully that is happening more often now and that’s what would be available in my film. I’d like to continue to do that in general with both African and African-Americans actors in my future films – it’s a struggle both face." Storytelling and creating a film from start to finish, merely scratch the surface of Oyinade's journey in Yemi's Dilemma. She's able to learn more about herself and grasp a better understanding of what it means to be a first-generation American
"I’m getting a chance to proudly showcase my culture in a way I haven’t been able to before," she said
For any first generation American feeling in doubt about where their loyalties should lie, Oyinade says being yourself is the only way to combat the pressure
"I’d say just be yourself and don’t let what anyone says make you feel that you aren’t great whether you speak the language or cook the food or not. Also, don’t let cultural norms deter you from fulfilling whatever your dream is. If it’s in your heart, it’s there for a reason so go after it." Noted as a drama with a touch of comedy, Oyinade's main objective with developing Yemi's Dilemma is to bring about open-mindedness to the love of diverse cultures
"I hope for audiences to leave with a more open and understanding heart for any moment where they might have felt two people shouldn’t be together for superficial reasons like race, ethnicity or religion," she explained. "I also want audiences to leave getting a taste of Nigerian culture – there’s a fun party scene at the beginning of the film that will illustrate some of that. And I hope for them to leave with a better understanding of experience first-generation Americans have in this country." Be on the lookout for Yemi's Dilemma in January 2017. Click here to support the project. Follow the progression of the project on both Facebook and Twitter