Farming is the latest skinhead movie, even if it feels more like one from the 80s or 90s. Based on writer-director Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s youth – very loosely, I should imagine – it tells the tale of a Nigerian boy named Enitan, who is raised by British white working-class foster parents in Tilbury. The friendless Enitan is brutalised by a gang of racist local skinheads. Since he can’t beat them, he joins them. But his ordeal has only just begun, as he becomes both victim and victimiser. While continuously receiving racist abuse, he doles out beatings to other non-whites in a bid to gain acceptance from his ‘friends’.
We had the privilege of attending a special screening of Farming at the Genesis Cinema in Stepney. This is where Princess Anne, in November 1970, went to see Bronco Bullfrog, having been publicly pressurised by some of the local kids who appeared in the movie. Back in those days, the place was called the ABC Mile End.
Let’s spill the beans straight away: in terms of authenticity, the cartoon skins populating Farming make Romper Stomper look like Bronco Bullfrog. A fair bit has been written about the notorious Tilbury Skins (aka Tilbury Trojan Skins), including in George Marshall’s Skinhead Nation (1996), and of course in a 1980 article in The Sun, which, as some of the kids quite articulately established on a BBC Radio programme, had framed and misrepresented them.
Farming director Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje has certainly googled all of this. The problem is that he can’t seem to tell plausible information from Sun fiction. He did memorise that Tilbury Skins, while casually racist – albeit towards “Pakistanis”, as they themselves stated on the BBC Radio show – weren’t nazis. Nazism is German, after all, and that’s hard to stomach if your nationalism is partly based on ‘Britain’s finest hour’. Farming makes a point of this when its main character’s stab at sieg-heiling prompts an angered three-sentence lecture on Britishness.
The real Tilbury Skins credibly recounted on BBC Radio that the Sun ‘reporters’ had plied them with booze and even brought a Union Jack along, ready to adorn a bare skinhead torso as the “bragging, brawling bunch” of “cropped rats” (as the paper dubbed them) posed for the camera. Farming freezes this staged image: the fictional skins grimace all the way through the movie like a pack of morons. One of them wears a Union Jack over his shoulders. He isn’t going to football or to an NF march, though – he just likes getting his top off and wearing flags, including to the pub…
Things take a bizarre turn when the ‘skinhead boss’ is seen lounging down the local, calmly stroking a boa constrictor wrapped around his shoulders like a Bond villain. Artistic licence, I suppose, but still an eccentric way to portray an 80s skinhead from Essex. The actor, John Dagleish, who was 37 at the time of filming, looks 40 plus, as do some of the other skins. In reality, 18 would have been the average age at the time. Urban legend has it that Tilbury Skins boasted a few leftover ‘originals’ from the 60s. Even if that were true, that would still make Dagleish a decade too old.
We wouldn’t be Creases Like Knives if we didn’t have some sartorial grievances to boot. The Farming skins wear Levi’s, but that’s as far as it goes: they’re modern-looking, low-waisted skinny Levi’s. That’s why the Ben Shermans won’t tuck in properly, leaving a bulge of material to billow awkwardly around the waist. And if Akinnuoye-Agbaje was a skinhead himself, did he not remember that skins didn’t start wearing skintight jeans until around 1983? A trip to Levi’s Vintage Store off Carnaby Street would have sufficed to rectify such ill-informed costume choices.
None of this compares well with, say, This Is England, which only prompted top-button related complaints in our ranks when it came out. There are other, less superficial aspects worth considering. What This Is England got right was that the skinhead world, much like the world at large, had always been contradictory. It was never simply the good guys vs the bad guys, or – forgive the pun – black and white. It is true that part of the skinhead scene degenerated dreadfully. But anyone who has ever been around right-wing, racist skins will know how inconsistent they are. On their own, they can be the sweetest people – including when you’re an immigrant, leftist, or whatever else they think they hate. The moment they’re with their mates, pissed-up, or both, it all changes.
It would have been good for Farming to flesh out such contradictions in its skinhead characters – or in fact, lend them any depth at all. Instead, we’re treated to a bunch of constantly vicious mumbling cretins who all appear to based on Dim from A Clockwork Orange (even Romper Stomper contented itself with one or two supporting characters based on him). The gang’s uncharismatic leader, Levi, also remains thoroughly one-dimensional. There doesn’t seem to be another side to him apart from what we see in the first few seconds. Frankly, humans aren’t like that – not even the nastiest of them.
The racist violence and sadism are bleak and hard to stomach, especially in the first 45 minutes or so. This is where Farming could have succeeded: by making us feel the impact of racism, reminding us how present and pernicious it was in British society not so long ago, and how ‘a bit of bovver’ sometimes meant that you ruined somebody else’s youth – or life. Sadly, the relentless violence and humiliation start wearing thin after a while. They become too much. They aren’t counterbalanced by anything. The non-stop bombardment blunts our senses to the point of deadening our empathy.
What’s more, the storyline goes over the top to the point where we stop buying it. The main character, Enitan, stabs someone and burns someone else alive with a Molotov cocktail. Life-altering injuries or death would have been the most likely consequences. But Enitan gets off with a slap on the wrist: in fact, he is offered a three-year law course to help him change his ways. Akinnuoye-Agbaje wants us to believe this really happened to a black kid in the 80s.
All of the above raises a big question: did the writer-director really run with the Tilbury Skins? A member of the Mod to Bootboy: 1958-1974 Facebook group claims that he went to school with him: “He wasn’t a skinhead at all, he was a mod”, he writes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some Tilbury Skins now active in the revival scene aren’t too happy with how they have been portrayed: according to them, Adewale’s story is “complete bullshit”.
I was cautious about such comments at first. People are partial to whitewashing the past, and ultimately it’s all ‘he said, she said’ – so, who knows? However, now that I’ve seen the movie and witnessed the writer-director’s clear lack of insight into the nature of skinheads, never mind human nature, I’m far more inclined to believe the “bullshit” theory. Has a single person come forward to confirm Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s account yet? With such an extraordinary story, you’d think someone might remember him.
While remarkable, his ‘true story’ isn’t unique. There have been real-life cases of conflicted black kids joining white supremacist gangs. In the late 70s, Hamburg’s punk scene was terrorised by a gang of nazi punks who called themselves Savage Army (SA) and later became the city’s first far-right skinhead crew – as it happens, the mob was led by a pair of mixed-race twins. It has been said that some of the people who Cass Pennant drank with in East London were at the same time some of Skrewdriver’s core audience – as a child and youth, Cass had experienced persistent racist bullying. In the US, there have been well-documented cases of ‘black boneheads’. And so on.
In Farming, we’re offered the obvious pop-psychological explanation within the first 15 minutes: racism breeds self-hatred, which is then acted out on others. No other ideas or reflection follow thereafter, with the movie basically turning into a violent spectacle. There’s a tacked-on ‘aspirational’ ending – but how did Enitan, or Akinnuoye-Agbaje, for that matter, manage to overcome his issues? We never learn. It’s unfortunate that Farming has so little to say about its intriguing basic premise. It’s even more unfortunate that the director thought himself fit to provide the godawful rock score, which includes a ‘ska’ tune that sounds like a holiday camp entertainer covering Kaiser Chiefs. He would have done better to consult Tilbury’s resident Oi band, the immortal Angela Rippon’s Bum.
While Farming teaches us nothing about racism that we didn’t already know, its 80s schlockbuster portrayal of skins simply doesn’t cut it in 2019. Its self-serious tone contradicts the fact that it offers more sensationalistic violence than insight. For a better movie, watch The Believer (2001), the ‘true story’ of a Jewish neo-nazi skinhead from New York City. Its cultural and religious references are a bit obscure to gentiles such as myself, but it is far more thought-provoking than Farming when treading similar territory.
And if you want to find out more about the actual Tilbury Skins, listen to the embedded BBC Radio programme, or watch them in 2013 in the documentary below.
This is a great review, the humour is spot on.
Sounds like absolute shite, Bronco bullfrog is still the best skinhead film even if its as entertaining as watching paint dry. The only other film i can think of where it isn’t about race is 16 years of alcohol.
So it’s back to normal then…
Lots of skinheads were second generation immigrant of some sort – This is England, it’s in the title!
What did Tilbury Skins do on Pink Floyd – the Wall at that time?
Bet a white person wrote this. Pathetic.
Instead of addressing/refuting any of the criticisms the article makes, all you can do is point to the author’s presumed ethnicity? Now that is truly pathetic.
You’re obviously cynical about the review of what is known by many as an absurd piece of cinematic crap. I suspect you’re a cohort of the filmmaker if not the man himself, so here’s something interesting you or him would never of been made aware of. In february 2008 the renowned anti racist organisation Searchlight, conducted an investigation into the past activities of the Tilbury Skins and their findings indicate conclusively that Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is nothing more than a fantasist plonker and a liar. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it as they say.
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Something else is that there’s a brief mention in the film of the foster family being Gypsies, ergo not actually white. So either he wasn’t raised by a white family – or at most – mixed – or he added that in for no good reason while calling Gypsies white. Not great either way, when you’re talking about racism.