‘Dark skin boys scare everything in the dark’
A lot of Caleb Femi’s work is autobiographical as he picks apart the common misconceptions of the environment he grew up in. Whether that is showing the light in London’s estates as they stagnate in the shadow of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in his Random Acts film “And They Knew Light”. Or, how his poem “Coconut Oil” maps out the changes in his hometown as if it were a precious head of hair, snipped away and parted “like it was infested with lice”. His most recent film casts a lens on grief and is an ode to the feeling among young black boys when there is, in his words, “one less among us”.
“Coping explores grief and mourning and the ways in which some young working-class black boys deal with the death of a friend,” he tells Dazed. Having grown up on North Peckham Estate, the same block as Damilola Taylor who died after being attacked when he was 10, death has been a staple feature of his youth. “I knew him and I’ve lost many other friends to youth violence since then. In the video there is a rejection of spirituality as soothing balm for grief in favour of a more immediate and tangible instinctive support system that exists amongst such affected young boys, a system founded on empathy, compassion and honesty.”
Speaking about the film’s concept, director Netti Hurley says she wanted viewers to connect with the trauma. She set upon making a poignant visual as intimate as the poetic verses. “I focused a lot on portraiture because it’s about the intimacy, and feeling close to these guys. Looking into their eyes to feel how they feel,” Hurley adds. Part of the short films authenticity is the fact that Femi, and models Amin Lawal and Webster who star alongside him, have grown up around grief.
“There’s a misconception that young black boys don’t feel grief, there is a singular perception that they’re just in a perpetual state of anger” – Caleb Femi
“It’s been part of the fabric of my teenage years, and my early 20s unfortunately. Our support system was throwing impromptu wakes, and drinking (tipping the alcohol out for the ones lost). We would make music remembering our dead. Unfortunately, we didn’t have spaces to talk to someone about our grief other than with each other,” he explains. “I think it’s important that the narrative in the media shifts towards empathy and sympathy for young people in such violent areas. That’s the only way we can begin to address the issues of poverty, mental health, and lack of opportunities that beat at the heart of all the violence.”
The film is particularly poignant right now as London’s knife crime epidemic is under intense scrutiny. The Express splashed “LONDON BLOODBATH” across it’s pages last week as newspapers are laser focussed on demonising social media, drill, and youth. However, Femi feels that the only conversation not being had is about how we help young boys to cope with the violent world around them.
He continues: “People that live on estates are real human beings, not facts and statistics, or stereotypes. We are not to be oversimplified contrary to the media’s narrative. Life to us is important and sacred and we lament the passing of our loved ones like anyone else. Why isn’t there more focus on helping us deal with mourning, with grief, with PTSD?” A condition which he says is rife among men his age living in these areas who feel like their wellbeing and their area are left to deteriorate.
“There’s a misconception that young black boys don’t feel grief, there is a singular perception that they’re just in a perpetual state of anger, I see it in schools, in working environments, in social settings. Often black boys are not afforded the status of kids, they are always view through the lens of adult,” he explains. “I want to reframe the conversation and inject some humanity into the often inconsequential responses to the violence and death we see.”
Watch ‘Coping’ below, Caleb Femi’s poetic short on young grief