Skip to main content
High-contrast, black-and-white portrait of a Black man with a beard and black T-shirt against a pure white backdrop.

Adeyemi Michael

Photo by Adam Jalloh

  • Black British Gaze on Film: Adeyemi Michael’s Nuanced Stories

    When Netflix UK tapped Adeyemi Michael to curate a collection of Black films in celebration of UK’s Black History Month in October 2020, his vision for the project wasn’t locked into a month-long temporal framework. Instead, he interrogated who the films were for and how he could satiate the appetite for Black content that extends well beyond one month of bandwagon hype. His larger vision was to share a variety of Black British experiences on film that resonate with broad audiences, a consistent theme throughout his body of work both as a director and in his consultative work.

    “With the reach Netflix has, it makes sense to do something that has enough appeal to everyone,” Adeyemi shared in a recent phone interview. The collection, called Black British Stories, is available to Netflix UK subscribers (see the full list).

    While working with the streaming giant to offer a wider offering of African diasporic entertainment, he deftly seized the opportunity to illuminate Black voices with integrity and authenticity—a recurring theme in his creative process.

    “The work that Black filmmakers are making from a Black British perspective is crucial. We need to tell our stories. We can tell our stories in many ways.”

    In curating the selection of films, Adeyemi reflected on how post-colonialism in the UK has relegated the depiction of  African diasporic communities to a monolithic group of Black British who have historically been subjugated to a lower-class designation. Consequently, colonialism has suppressed the possibilities for its Black British population, resulting in a limited scope of realities that are presented in mainstream depictions of Black life. In his conversations with Netflix, Adeyemi was adamant about presenting films that conveyed a wide breadth of experiences across different forms and genres—not just the greatest and lowest moments but the simple and mundane.

    “It needs to have and breathe joy,” he emphasized. “It needs to have stories of family, love, friendship, turmoil, struggle to find joy. There is a horror film, a coming-of-age story, a comedy series, a plethora of stories that really speak to how we live and not just the overarching narrative of the rough story of being in a ghetto, because there’s a lot of that.”

    Adeyemi adeptly spoke to his Black British audience through the selection of films and was cognizant of not restricting content to stereotypical notions of Black life. He was also intentional about films that spoke to human experiences more broadly, that transcend Blackness. In one particular case, he broadens the range of films by including Black British filmmaker Steven McQueen’s film Hunger. The film is a dramatized story about Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands’ protest of the British government’s refusal to recognize him and his fellow RIA inmates as political prisoners.

    “A large part was saying there is work being made by filmmakers and writers who write about experiences that aren’t just Black, including a Steven McQueen film about Bobby Sands, who staged a hunger strike.”

    A man wearing a face mask and holding a coffee cup and a bunch of papers gestures toward two men dressed in character.
    Director Adeyemi Michael and actors on the set of The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be
    Photo by Seye Isikalu

    As a filmmaker himself, Adeyemi’s work is deeply anchored in an inescapable Black gaze that is banished of racial tropes. His creative approach involves tackling the erasure of rich African diasporic histories by illuminating nuanced stories through film. As a Nigerian-born Brit, Adeyemi intuitively examines the tangible and intangible culture that remains with Black British immigrants after migrating from their homelands.

    “My gaze centers telling stories of the African community, the Pan-African community, African in Africa, African abroad.I was born in Nigeria and felt a strong affinity to that, even growing up in London. I grew up in a very strong Yoruba Nigerian community, and I really want the work I make to reflect the community I come from.”

    In his silent yet visually powerful 2018 film Entitled, Adeyemi investigates his mother’s migration from Nigeria to London and her personal negotiations between cultural assimilation and maintaining her Nigerian identity. He repositions conversations about how Black European migrants and immigrants fit into a larger societal context amid Brexit and other sociopolitical occurrences.

    A Black woman couture yellow dress and wide purple headwrap with gold embellishments rides a black horse down a city street.
    Scene from Entitled, directed by Adeyemi Michael
    Photo by Adama Jalloh

    Though the unspoken undertone of colonialism is inextricably linked to Black British experiences, the film shows his mother as the central fixture of the story, emanating an effortless regality within the space of the colonizer. The striking imagery of a graceful Black woman gallivanting throughout the streets of London atop a horse in traditional Nigerian clothing is a sight to behold. Her sartorial choices—intricately wrapped purple and gold gele (Nigerian head wrap), yellow ochre lace dress with purple embroidered silk fabric, purple shoes, and purse—are signifiers of home. Her adornments visualize the elements of her cultural heritage that she clings to while inevitably assimilating into European societal norms. The horse serves as a visual apparatus to explore a conversation about subverting ideas of colonialism.

    “In simple terms, I’m trying to say here is my mom, and she’s amazing,” Adeyemi declares. “And this is who we are, too.”

    Integrity and trust are driving forces behind Adeyemi’s creative ethos. “A large part of why I am able to tell stories with integrity is because of the trust that I gain with people.” Handling heavy topics as a director—such as the socioeconomic contexts that surrounded the murder of a Jamaican British teen in the BBC documentary Murder on the Streets, or the Black medical student who finds himself on trial for murder and is reduced to a stereotypical thug in Sodiq—Adeyemi has become a master of telling complex emotional stories about Black British life.

    “Even when it’s a story about something that is gruesome or difficult to deal with in the depths of trauma, we must tell it in a way that can take you somewhere, to a place where Black life is valued—not just swimming in despair and drama.” For Adeyemi, achieving trust is integral to telling the stories with the veracity and humanity that is often eclipsed by negative news headlines.

    A Black man peers into the camera, wearing a dark jacket against a dark backdrop.
    Scene from The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be, directed by Adeyemi Michael
    Photo by Seye Isikalu

    His most recent film, The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be, is part of an Afrofuturist anthology that imagines possibilities for the future through a sci-fi lens. Currently on the film festival circuit before streaming to the British network Film4, it was directed by Adeyemi, written by Courttia Newland, and produced by Fiona Lamptey. The film is set in the year 2080, when climate change has forced human beings away from Earth. Those who remain live an isolated, nomadic existence. In the desolate landscape, the main character Dez forages to survive until he and others unearth a morsel of the past which leads them on an unexpected mission.

    Adeyemi’s body of work does more than challenge the way narratives shape perceptions of Black diasporic experiences in the media. “My thinking is breaking lines, or not staying within them, through genre and form.” As a service to his community, Adeyemi weaves through various film genres while elegantly upending colonial frameworks that oversimplify Black British experiences. He seeks to expand the scope of storytelling about Black life by questioning who gets to tell Black stories, and in doing so he refuses to pander. Ever steadfast in his integrity, Adeyemi believes that if he stays true to himself and to his community, he will beget more opportunities to authentically create projects that align with his personal mission.

    When asked about his legacy, Adeyemi pensively stated, “I hope that the legacy of my work will be transformative for people. But also affirming.”

    Haili Francis is the major gift officer at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is passionate about art, fashion, and people and loves exploring Black diasporic identities through visual culture.

  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Cultural Vitality Program, educational outreach, and more.