Children need secure love. Not broken promises. Or, betrayal. Especially not abuse. When that happens to you, you build hard walls around yourself. Shut down to love. Not believing it’s there. That’s Femi. Small boy, turned teenager in Shola Amoo’s powerful, semi-autobiographical, The Last Tree. And, when “going tough” means turning against needing anyone, that has dire consequences. Mostly because you end up abandoning who you are. The real you. The one who cares. If you’re lucky, the people who hurt you, say “I’m sorry.” That goes a long way to finding the real self you almost left behind.
Yes, Femi (Sam Adewunmi) had that real self, as a small boy in Lincolnshire, verging into puberty. He might not have – if it hadn’t been for Mary (Denise Black), his loving foster mom. He didn’t feel different, growing up in the village of all white children, (Wolf Gang, you can do it! Faster! Faster!), rolling around happily together in the mud.
Then, crying out a victory cry like his friends taught him. Loud and proud, up there on the hill. Femi played, rough and tumble with all the other boys. Boys that loved him. Just as Mary did. But she made a mistake. Out of love and her own wishes, but still. She promised him he could stay forever. That his mom wouldn’t come and take him away.
She was wrong. He’d begged, of course. Wanted to stay. She was the only mom he knew. This was his home. And, he was scared he might have to go away. He was right.
Broken Promises & Heartbroken Boy
“You just gonna let her take me? You promised,” Femi (Tai Golding) pleads. “She’s your mother.” “No!” And, Femi walks out. Fast down the long highway. A boy with nowhere to go. Just away. From the hurt, the heartbreak. Of losing his home. Yelling loud. A scream. Not a victory cry. The cry of a scared and powerless boy.
Mary’s there waiting outside when, after dark, Femi shows up at home. Holding him close. Later, a “Goodbye Party.” Sad friends. Femi, walking in slow motion, willing time to stop, every step echoing his sadness and withdrawal. As he gets into his mom’s car, taking him away, Mary says: “Remember how proud I am of you. And, I’m always here.”
He doesn’t believe her. Betrayed, alone, in London, living what must be a nightmare for a lonely boy, he won’t answer her calls. The only safety is to close off; want nothing.
Plus, to Femi, this mom is not his mom. She’s a stranger. Given into foster care when he was very small, Mary’s his mom, not Yinka (Gbemisola Ikumelo). Plus, Yinka’s gone all day, making him clean, demanding it, “do the laundry, sweep just exactly right.” And, when he doesn’t? She hits him angrily with a stick. No this isn’t a mom.
He hates her. She’s jealous of his love for Mary. Tortures him; tries to get control; beats him if she can’t. Not seeing how hurt and scared he is. This isn’t love. All she can see is that her son won’t let her take him to school. Wants nothing from her. Nothing at all.
If you’re scared and have no one to trust. How do you get power? To tough it out alone?
Getting Power Over Fear
Anger does a lot of things. Especially when you’re mocked, teased; not welcomed at a new school. So, you punch. Almost get suspended. Your mom’s in a rage. That doesn’t stop you. It can’t. The kind sensitive boy you were? He’s banished. You turn tough. Befriend the ones that get their power by being bullies; like the bullies who bullied you.
It’s not really who you are. That boy is pushed aside and buried inside you. Maybe gone forever, if something doesn’t happen later, to change it. Like, a few things in your favor.
But until those helpful things happen, you grow up. Become a teenager. You’re big now. And, strong. That’s Femi. And, he works hard to keep it that way. He has to be tough in the world he lives in; without a mom, he can turn to. And, he’s really scared deep down inside. But he has to fight the fear, challenge it, thumb his nose in fear’s face.
So, Femi becomes a kid he never thought he’d be. Steals from a store. Is convinced, by Mace (Demmy Ladipo), a gangster, to “show what he’s made of.” By beating a white blonde boy, like the friends he used to have. Femi does. This isn’t Femi’s real self, but he’s looking for a kind of respect he has nowhere else. A way out.
The wrong road out. Femi doesn’t know it yet. Supposedly to some sort of freedom. A cell phone, the promise of power, being a “boss,” not a pawn of others. Femi’s a traumatized boy, very vulnerable; just trying not to feel alone. And horribly scared.
Fear does a lot of things. Mostly, when you’re devastated as a child, it makes you distrust adults. Even those who want to help. Something you cannot believe.
Who Is A Friend & Who Is Not?
When you’ve been hurt by love, and kids have bullied you, it’s hard to know who is a friend and who is not. Trust isn’t easy to come by. You live with hard edges and walls.
It’s good if your mom is a friend like Mary was. But Femi’s mom is always on his case. He can’t trust she cares. Plus, he hates her. She knows it. Hate creates an unyielding armor against being hurt again. He’s always getting up, turning his back. Ignoring her. Walking out. Walls intact. He’ll do what he wants. The best defense he has.
Plus, she’s always in the office with his teacher, Mr. Williams (Nicholas Pinnock), embarrassed by Femi. Telling him, he’s failing himself. Sure, he is. And, she’s right: “There’s nothing ok about his rotten attitude.” But no one gets it. Or has empathy. Well, maybe Mr. Williams does. He says he wants to help, but Femi can’t let him in. Not yet.
About Mace? Femi’s not so sure Mace is a friend. He does pretty scary things. Makes Femi stand guard. Go blank, in terror, trying to be brave. Is this what it takes to get free? After all, Mace shows him he’s a family man, protecting those he loves. Telling Femi, school’s good. But, after, “you gonna let them pimp you out?
Or be your own boss?” It’s confusing. Mace is right about a lot of things; just goes about getting things done in a violent way. The wrong way. But he knows that the police are brutal and unfair to Blacks. That the Prime Minister is a racist. And, he knows never to settle for “just ok.” Never. Well. That sounds good. But. Where is the real Femi?
Femi’s not a violent boy. Or cruel.
Someone Who “Gets You” Helps
Someone who “gets you” breaks down the barriers you built inside. Sometimes it’s when you see in them, a lost part of yourself. And, you’re hungry for connection. The Last Tree shows us how.
Femi tries to reach out to Tope (Ruthxjiah Bellenea), the girl with blue dreads. Asks to listen to her music. The Cure: “… so lost in the dark. A memory of … how you used to be.” He can’t admit it. It’s his music too. Lies to his friends; says he’s listening to Tupac. To fit in. But, some of the things he does, do not fit with his real feelings.
Yes, there’s Tope. With her haunted eyes and music. His two best compadres harass her constantly, for her very dark skin. She’s scared and angry but stands her ground. Staring back, with her hardened eyes. Femi doesn’t help. Can’t. Not yet. But he knows.
“Why are you being nice to me?” Tope suspiciously asks. Femi ventures out: “You know the whole light skin, dark skin thing? It’s a joke, right?” He’s serious. That wasn’t his experience, growing up with Mary. But, here, in London, racism is a very real thing.
Femi’s darker than some, too. Yet, Tope can’t trust he understands: “Why didn’t you stop them? … You trying to be nice to me? … you’re a bit, late man … just trying to chat about what? How black I am?” He’s sincere: “I’m sorry.” Means it, but it’s not enough for her. “Don’t say, I’m sorry. I just want you to get it. Get. It.”
Tope’s right. “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Having someone “Get it” before they just say, “I’m sorry,” is what helps healing. And opening up again. You need someone to get how hurt you are – maybe, even how they’ve hurt you – or there’s no place for your grief.
Healing Power of a Place for Grief
Femi has assumptions. So angry at his mom, he’s sure his dad left for the same reasons he wants to leave. Little does he know the real story. And, it’s a shock when he does open up enough to find out. But, to get there, it takes two people in his life saying, “I’m sorry.” And, believing they get his hurt. Mary and his mom.
First, though, it takes really seeing who Mace is. And, his teacher, Mr. Williams, breaking through Femi’s bluff. He gets it – Femi’s life, so close to his own: “I grew up like you. My friends are in jail. I was almost there.” He sees Femi’s intelligence. That his behavior is not him. Can Mr. Williams be trusted? Can any grown-up?
Tope, she knows. The way he suffers. She is him. The same struggle, the way hurt becomes a prison. He doesn’t want to go Mace’s way. But what can turn him around? When he sees Mace viciously beat someone, he drops into terror. This isn’t who he is. Having flashbacks, in a fugue, he grabs his “friends” away from Tope. And kisses her.
Time has stopped. He’s not ok. Not in this reality, blood splattered on his shirt. He doesn’t know what to do. Needs help and finally lets Mr. Williams in (angry because Femi broke his promise to come to class.) Yet, Mr. Williams is there to help. Anyway.
He pushes Femi, hard, to feel things – about foster care, his traumas, being abandoned. Pushes him – to break through the icy shell that blocks out all the hurt. “Don’t fuck with me, man. Don’t fuck with me.” Femi yells, wildly punching, finally feeling anger. Mr. Williams holds him. Tight. He lets Femi sob. And, cry out the grief about all he’s lost.
“I’m Sorry” Goes A Long Way
Yet, is all the past lost? The love he once had? As a baby and a very small boy, coming to America from Nigeria with his terrified mom? And, Mary’s, who was a mother to him.
Sometimes love feels lost, even when it isn’t. When actions are misconstrued. Become only betrayal in your mind. When you feel there’s no other choice but to turn away and shut down to Mary’s calls. To your mom. To loving anyone, including yourself. Mr. Williams brings back the feelings Femi’s closed out. An important kind of healing.
Plus, Tope starts to open Femi up, remembering who he was and didn’t completely lose (listening to The Cure, although he had to lie.) Keeping hold of something of himself; some remnant of the loving boy he was. That’s a cure, too, after all. Not totally forgetting. Still wanting something more than being scared, or the gangster that he’s not.
So, Femi goes to visit Mary. Finally. He goes back home. She has another foster boy, and at first that’s hard. He feels replaced. But, when Femi plays with him, like a big brother, tumbling; he remembers how he himself played. And he talks honestly to Mary, about his feelings of hurt and betrayal. And, Mary says “I’m sorry. I was too attached.”
They both face the reality that he isn’t and wasn’t really her boy. But love was there. And, is. That can’t be taken away. Unless you stop letting it into your heart.
Playing with Mary’s little foster boy, it is as if Femi is loving his own little self. Bringing that happy boy back to life. And, when his phone rings, Mace calling, Femi doesn’t pick up. He’s done. But it isn’t quite over. Not until after Mace viciously beats him up.
Finding Your Real Self (Again)
Even before the brutal beating, there is a new softness between Femi and his mom. When he comes home from Mary’s, she asks, “How are you.” And, he says, “I’m ok.”
The healing comes in The Last Tree after the beating from Mace. He struggles home, barely able to move, bleeding. His mother, not critical, tends to his wounds. Gently. Lovingly. “I’m sorry,” she tells him and cries: “I only wanted the best for you. I didn’t bring you here for this. I had no one and nothing. I’ve always loved you. I will always love you. Even if you hate me.” He responds, gently: “I don’t hate you.” Yinka looks into his eyes – surprised. And, relieved.
Now is the time to take a journey back. To show Femi his history, his father. So, he really understands. Back to Lagos, Nigeria, where it all began. The shocking thing is his father’s wealth. A father, so cruel, he didn’t help them. A father who left his mother because “she didn’t know how to submit, as a wife should.”
A wildflower, the father, a Pastor, calls her. Not raised by her own mother and father. Femi gets it. Stands up for her: “She had nothing. Why didn’t you let us live here? You have plenty of space.” He walks out. Grabs his mom. Hugs her tight.
Yinka initiates Femi into a Nigerian spiritual ritual. On the beach later, he feels freedom he hasn’t had since he was taken from Mary. He’s found that happy boy again, his real self. Femi screams, remembering: “Wolf Gang, you can do it!” Yes, now he can