Coming to America

Filmmakers like Nikyatu Jusu, of Sierra Leonean descent, provide reference points for young African immigrants growing up in the West.

Still from "Say Grace Before Drowning."

It would be difficult for me to write this post without revealing my excitement at discovering the talents of Sierra-Leonean, American, Atlantian, New Yorker filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu. After seeing her work, it almost seems like films that I had been wishing into existence my entire life have suddenly materialized. I selfishly (repping Salone) cheer Nikyatu on as her emergence has come as an answer for many unrealized personal visions.

I had first heard about Nikyatu when her film “African Booty Scratcher” was screened on HBO a couple of years ago. I didn’t get to see the film then, but it is now available to watch online. Shot in New York City, “African Booty Scratcher” recounts the touching tale of the cultural struggle between an American raised teenager and her African mother, and covers the conflicts within generations, cultures, and gender in a short uncomplicated narrative.

While immigrant narratives in the United States tend to center around the issues of the Latino communities mostly, other communities are often left out of the conversation. The only representation of the African immigrant experience in the U.S. I can remember growing up was in (yes) Eddie Murphy’s comedy, “Coming to America.” It’s a heartening sign that new voices are emerging that will provide reference points for young people going through similar struggles around the world, from the U.S. to places like Australia and Germany.

Still from “African Booty Scratcher.”

Nikyatu’s New York University thesis film, “Say Grace Before Drowning,”  continues her exploration of identity in the context of contemporary global migration. This time, she takes the story into darker and more mature territory. The film is about the struggle of a war traumatized mother to adapt to a suburban American lifestyle. Jusu again uses a simple narrative to illustrate issues that reverberate across multiple worlds and experiences, and shows how problems that originate in another part of the world can surface in even the most seemingly benign locations. What we realize by the end is that no place is neutral.

While motivated by wanting to create positive portrayals of black women on the screen, Nikyatu’s stories will resonate with anyone who sits firmly between multiple worlds. And maybe what’s most important is through her artistic work, Jusu and other contemporary artists working from an underrepresented perspective are able to create a space for new realities in a world that would rather erase our identities than confront the inequalities infused within our contemporary global society.

Jusu is currently writing two feature length projects, one of which will be a continuation of her short “Black Swan Theory.” Say Grace Before Drowning is currently running on HBO.

Update: “Say Grace Before Drowning” is now available to watch in full online:

Further Reading