Netflix’s ‘Bigger Than Africa’ Filmmaker Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye Discusses the Impact of West African Culture on the Diaspora

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Image: Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye.

As Black people, we are hyper-aware of the fragmented relationship to our ancestral origin due to slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, there has always been an ever-present desire to rebuild our linkage to our homeland by whatever means necessary. Because of this, it is important that we recognize the greater impact of the slave trade has had on the Black diaspora.

Netflix’s documentary Bigger Than Africa details the journey of enslaved Africans from the vantage point of West African culture and the countries of Brazil, Cuba, Nigeria, Trinidad, Tobago and the United States. Throughout the film, viewers are able to witness how the West African Yoruba culture from Nigeria, the Republic of Benin and Togo has transcended continents and links the Black diaspora together.

EBONY sat down with Bigger Than Africa‘s director Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye to talk about the influence of pan-Africanism on the Black diaspora and his hopes on how the film will impact the culture.

EBONY: What inspired the creation of Bigger Than Africa?

Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye: The inspiration came in my final year of film school. I was born and raised in Nigeria, but have lived in Los Angeles for about 20 years now and went to film school there. In my final year of school, I wanted to do something that reflected my culture and myself. As I was researching, I came across a village in South Carolina and went to visit with a group I assembled. When we got there, what I saw was overwhelming—to see such acknowledgement and practice of Yoruba culture in North America blew my mind. I then told my crew that we can not do justice to the story in a 7 or 15 minute short film we had hoped to make, so we left and went back to Los Angeles. After working on another project and doing more research, I was ready to embark on the project four year later and that is how Bigger Than Africa was born.

What do you hope people understand about the trans-Atlantic slave trade after watching this?

I always say that I hope Bigger Than Africa becomes a unifying documentary for all people of African descent, irrespective of their country. That is my cause and my hope. Although I grew up in West Africa, I’ve spent more than half of my life here in the United States. With that said, I understand both cultures which gives me different insight and perspective into how other people have told the story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I realized that the education system in West Africa was structured in a way where there’s limitations to what we know about what happened to our people once they [were taken away from the homeland]. We carry a general knowledge but there is a missing link between us. It’s the same way that many do not understand the impact of colonialism on West African countries. Not only is the film a revelation to those of African descent outside of Africa, but it is also a revelation to Africans in Africa. There is so much more to the [slave] story that we need to understand in order to further understand our whole community.

What would you say to encourage Black American folks who are interested in regaining a sense of their origin by reconnecting with the West African culture?

In the film, there is a segment that includes Afro-Brazilian people talking about their own experience reckoning with their African heritage and they are aware that their ancestor came from one particular part of Africa. Then we go to Trinidad and Tobago and it’s a different experience but they share the same heritage. This is true for all of the six different countries highlighted in the film where all of them speak different languages but stake claim in honoring that we all came from the same place. Although we have differing experiences and went through different circumstances due to colonialism, we share a whole lot of history. I think that’s what the film shows.

I want people to know and understand that West Africa is still open and is open to all of us, if they seek it.

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