Ethosheia Hylton’s ‘Dọlápọ̀ is Fine’ (2020) is a coming of age tale that examines the topic of black female identity and its perceived incompatibility with the demands of western society through the lens of protagonist Dọlápọ̀, a young boarding school student. Strand sat down with co-writer Joan Iyiola to discuss in more detail the origins of the film as well as some important themes that it deals with, such as the ethical implications of human hair wigs, and the weight of intergenerational trauma within the black community.
How did ‘Dọlápọ̀ is Fine’ first come to be?
The film started off as a short story called ‘Sunita’ that was written by my co-screenwriter Chibundu Onuzo, who is also a novelist. I was the actress hired to read the story for Radio 3's Young Artists Day. I remember receiving the story and sort of stumbling over the words to begin with, because I couldn't quite believe that this was the first time that I was seeing my experience played back at me. I later heard her speak at an event that the British Library ran called ‘Africa Writes’ and once I saw that she was on the panel, bearing in mind that I didn’t know Chibundu personally at the time, I ran over to her like a fangirl and introduced myself. Her response to this was, “I know exactly who you are. You read my short story”. She recognised my voice! And so began our collaboration... We worked on a few projects after that but it wasn’t until about 18 months ago that I suggested that we adapt her short story for the screen. I just thought that visually, the message that we could convey about the nature of ‘hair’ and ‘name’ and the environments that we as black women exist in, as well as how we still have to try and be ourselves within these environments that weren’t made for us, deserved to be showcased.
What influences did you draw from when writing the script?
We wanted to create a film that was about celebration and positivity because I had just reached a point where I was done with seeing negative portrayals of the black experience and not being able to reconcile this with the experiences of those around me. The films ‘She’s Gotta Have it’ (1986), ‘Bad Hair’ (2020) and ‘Girlhood’ (2014) certainly influenced me. Of course, another massive inspiration was our cinematographer Yinka Edward. He was involved in the making of the first Nigerian Netflix film called ‘Lionheart’ (2018) and I remember watching that film and saying “Wow, look at beauty, look at black skin on the screen”. So when we got him as our DOP it was just beautiful because I didn’t have to explain. There was no need to urge him to make sure that the lighting was as it should be and that we shoot people with beauty because it was all part of his mission as well. Ethosheia [Hylton] was really able to elevate the script into something more than what we imagined. Her vision was inspired by 90s films like ‘The Craft’ and ‘Clueless’. She also recognised the importance of music in the film which is reflected through the wonderful afrobeat artists that have collaborated with us and given us some of their tracks to match the rhythm and tone of the piece.
Talk to me a bit about the character Daisy. I found her final interaction with Dọlápọ̀ to be particularly powerful. What did this moment represent to you?
I played Daisy in the film and despite what people may think, I genuinely didn't write the part for myself, but as we wrote more and more redrafts of the script, I got to better understand the complexities and nuances of Daisy as a character. I just hadn’t seen a part like this before. I actually had to petition myself to the director and try to convince her that I was right for the part. I’m so thankful that she said yes because I really love Daisy and I think there are so many sides to her that create such a full human being for the short space of time that she’s on screen. As for the scene near the end of the film, I interpreted the glance as being part disappointment and part shock, with all of this morphing into a sense of admiration because she witnesses what Dọlápọ̀ does and how she holds herself with confidence and pride in this environment. In the eyes of someone like Daisy, this wouldn’t have worked, so I think what we see in this short exchange is a journey happening for her. It begins to open up another possibility about the world.
People within Dọlápọ̀’s own ethnic community are often the ones to criticise her (e.g. her mentor Daisy and her parents) but it is her white friend Imogen who praises her natural identity. Was this dynamic created intentionally, and if so, what was the message behind it?
Yes. We don't often speak about the fact that the pressures come from all sides. We live in a world that’s riddled with inequalities and injustice because of western ideals, but this pressure can also come from within our own community intergenerationally because their experiences have taught them that in order to survive, you have to change yourself to fit this standard. This is why I love learning from the younger generation because for me, you have the answer. You speak in a way that is fearless so you're always suggesting new ways of moving forward. When we look at things like sexuality and gender for example, we have to listen to the youth. Your language for it is much better than ours. I think it's the same in these moments of the film, we wanted to say that things can change and that what we should be doing is creating space for self-expression and understanding as opposed to clamping down on this.
The scene in the woods brings about an ethical dilemma for Dọlápọ̀ as she is forced to come to terms with the likely source of her wig. What were your intentions for this scene and what are your thoughts on the topic itself?
One of the things we wanted to look at was how hair travels. When Dọlápọ̀ and Sunita meet we must acknowledge that there are humans on either side of this process so that when we go into our hair shops and see rows of wigs, we really consider what the journey has been for it to arrive in our hands, and question whether that’s right. In the black community, our hair is our trauma much as it is our crown and glory, and it's the same with this scenario right? This hair could be somebody’s trauma or somebody’s joy. Either way, we wanted to explore what our involvement in that process was and showcase this.
Have you got any upcoming projects that we can look forward to?
I don't know what I’m allowed to say – things that I’m passionate about! I’m currently working on a comedy drama about being at an age where you’re expected to be entering parenthood, but instead you’re focused on career progression. Another project involves exploring black love, and examining the black female experience in this context. Another is a legal drama thriller that, much like ‘Dọlápọ̀ is Fine’, deals with how the environments we exist in can sometimes come into conflict with who we want to be and can be, so act as obstacles to our progression. Alongside my own writing, through our production company Apatan Productions, I am also helping to nurture and guide other writers in their future projects. Again, for me it's about allowing my artistry to do its thing, but also making space for others to come through and tell their own stories. As my friend Daniel Kaluuya said so brilliantly, I feel as if I've been handed the baton, so my job is to run as fast as I can while I've got it in my hand so that when I pass it on, there are so many more opportunities for everyone around me. So starting this journey and creating this film in this way, with a young black girl’s story at the heart of it, was really important to me.
'Dọlápọ̀ is Fine’ won the HBO Short Film Award at the American Black Film Festival and is available to watch now on Netflix.
Edited by Juliette Howard, Film Editor