Owusu was nominated for an AMAA for bringing the book to life on screen and continuing with her goal to put the spotlight on African cinema. Owuse produced and directed the film through her company Obibini Pictures, LLC that has produced award-winning films including “Kwaku Ananse,” which won the 2013 African Movie Academy Award for Best Short Film.
The film tells the complicated story of a Nigerian woman named Kamara, played by Nigerian actress Chinasa Ogbuagu, who is hired by Neil and his wife, Tracy, an artist, to help care for their young child Josh in an upmarket home. It is when Kamara realises she wants to be Tracy’s muse that the ideas of preconceived notions of identity, beauty and attraction come into question.
We chatted to her about the film:
1. Your new movie is based on the story On Monday of Last Week by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Tell us why you decided to choose this story?
Well, after reading all the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck, “On Monday of Last Week” resonated with me the most, as it dealt with themes I was exploring in my films about immigration, beauty and constructions of power. I made a short film in 2009 called Me Broni Ba (which translates to My White Baby), which is a documentary essay about my sister’s childhood memories migrating from Ghana to the United States and trying to assimilate. Also, while my mother was pregnant with me, she worked as a nanny for a couple in Virginia. The story’s engaging subject matter and narrative structure was similar to Me Broni Ba. I was also struck by the ideas of beauty, loneliness and feelings of inadequacy, which are extremely universal and relatable. I had also just moved to New York after developing Black Sunshine in Ghana and was looking for new ways to create in the city. So, producing “On Monday of Last Week” in New York seemed like an appropriate narrative opportunity that could be a precursor to my feature, Black Sunshine.
2. When did you read the book and what made you decide this was a story you wanted to reinterpret?
Shortly after Lupita Nyong’o announced that she had optioned the rights to Americanah, I got a lot of press coverage on my debut feature Black Sunshine. The co-production structure had been set up in a traditional Hollywood model that wasn’t making me happy, creatively. At the time, it seemed everybody in the industry had projects featuring African albinos. The subject matter of Black Sunshine wasn’t as interesting to me anymore; I was over it, so to speak. So, I chose to put Black Sunshine in a drawer and shift my focus and energy to other ideas. It was a tough year because I had been working on it for over seven years and had received many awards and prizes. After letting go, I needed to feel inspired again. I picked up Chimamanda’s short story collection and I felt On Monday of Last Week was in line with my previous work, so, when Chimamanda gave me the short film assignment through my production company Obibini Pictures, I started adapting the screenplay.
3. Were you given a lot of restrictions from Chimamanda, ?
No. It’s funny; people seem to think I have access to Chimamanda, but I’ve never met her. I sent her reps a copy of Me Broni Ba. They were intrigued and asked me how I planned to use the story. Once the film rights were optioned successfully, she gave me the freedom to do what I wanted with her material for a year. That was a benevolent act on her part; to trust me to adapt her short story into a film, especially without us having a formal conversation.
4. Did everything have to be approved by Chimamanda, cast, location etc?
No, not at all. Nothing had to be approved by Chimamanda, but I kept her reps informed throughout the creative process. I found my lead actress, Chinasa Ogbuagu in a Nigerian off-Broadway play called Sojourners. And, my lawyer, Andrew Farber went to school with Bernard Telsey, whose company is known for casting award-winning films and shows on Broadway. So, Telsey+Company came on board and helped with casting Karyn Parsons and Peter Rini. For locations, we ended up choosing exteriors in Harlem to represent Kamara’s world, juxtaposed with a Brooklyn brownstone as the family’s quintessential world.
5. Was this your first time working with Chimamanda?
Oh yes! This is my first time working with Chimamanda and adapting a short story. I have a Sankofa mentality, where I find myself constantly trying to find my place in history. I shoot primarily on film and create from archival footage, but also my own experiences or from people who are close to me in Ghana where my family is from, and Virginia, where I was born and raised. Also, Chimamanda’s writing on immigrant experiences sort of mirrors my films, so adapting from her work came naturally.
6. What would you say really stood out about the story and how difficult was it to get the perfect cast?
I think what immediately stood out for me about the story were the different types of cultures that were represented in an engaging way through diverse characters. To find the perfect cast, I had to be creative and trust my abilities. Karyn Parsons’s husband is a filmmaker and NYU professor, so she seemed accessible to me. After she read my screenplay, we met up at a coffee shop in Brooklyn. She was so friendly and willing to take part in the creative process, especially because my project was in line with her non-profit, Sweet Blackberry, which focuses on educating young children about African American history. The Tracy character is a New York-based artist and quite the antithesis of her Hilary Banks role in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. My friend, Jennah Bell, who is an immensely talented musician, came on board to style Karyn’s natural hair in faux locs, which took over ten hours! But they were such good sports about it! For Neil, I needed a white male actor, who would be eager to take part in the film. As a young Black female director with little narrative film directing experience, that was a challenge. We didn’t cast Peter Rini until the day before going into production. With Farouk James, I ended up finding him on Instagram. Since “On Monday of Last Week”, was my first fiction short that I was shooting in the US, it was important for me to have a Ghanaian connection in the film. Farouk James is half-Ghanaian and the only character who is a non-professional actor. I wanted a Ghanaian connection and to stay true to the auteur-driven nature of my previous films. When we shot the film, he was just four years old. A lot of people advised me that he was too young, but his brief presence in the film added an authentic dimension to the narrative, which a professionally trained child actor couldn’t provide. A few weeks before production, I was on a screenwriting residency in France. I had very little time to cast a child actor in New York. I was new to the city, and didn’t know anybody who could help me with finding a talented child actor. So I turned to Instagram for help. Farouk James is an Instagram model famous for his extremely long hair. When the announcement was made that I had secured the rights to the film, people still had their doubts. I had to rely entirely on faith that things would work out with the limited resources I had. We produced the film on a humble budget and my closest friends in the industry pulled through to help me succeed with its delivery.
7. Each time a book is adapted into a film, people always say it will never live up to the book. Do you think your film has lived up to the book?
You are right; I don’t want audiences to feel utterly betrayed by my interpretation and filmmaking style. I mean, filmmaking is its own art form, and there are many ways to interpret original text while preserving its essence. Most of my films are experimental and use non-professional actors. This was my first fiction using trained SAG actors. I tried to be creative and channel Chimamanda’s literary strengths through cinematic images but also stay true to my style, and I hope audiences will be surprised that I’m bringing something fresh to the story, rather than expecting my version of On Monday of Last Week to be exactly like the original. I don’t want to be the film director version of Chimamanda. I’m more concerned with the film being an Akosua Adoma Owusu film – a feminist filmmaker’s rendering of Chimamanda’s brilliant and interesting writing. If the film is panned, it’s not going to be Chimamanda’s fault; it would be my fault, and that was something I was cognizant of while shooting the film. I mean, her work has been used in fashion, sampled by Beyonce, and optioned by Lupita for a feature. There’s magic in our collaboration – the story is preserved and timeless.“On Monday of Last Week” has become a new story; it’s now our story, remixed.
8. What other projects can we expect from you this year?
I’m transitioning and shifting my focus from making experimental shorts to more feature-length films, which has been my ultimate goal. It’s a new territory for me, and I’m excited about it. I believe the short films I’ve produced with my production company Obibini Pictures LLC have been stepping stones to get there. I’m in the early stages of pre-production for my long-awaited debut feature Black Sunshine and putting together an international team to shoot in Ghana. I’m also working on a film based on my experiences developing the “Save the Rex” Initiative, my on-going attempt to revive one of Ghana’s oldest cinema houses into an alternative creative space for fine art, live performances and film.
9. Any more plans to work with Chimamanda on other stories?
Gosh, I would love to! I don’t think I’ve fully processed the magnitude of this gift from Chimamanda to adapt her short story, and it’s been truly humbling. Even though I’ve been fortunate enough to make films and have a global platform, when it comes to Black women working in film, I still feel like the underdog. I want people to know my contribution to the industry. I want to hopefully convince the producers of Americanah to hire me as the writer/director for the film! I want to have my name included in that conversation. That would be a dream!