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ARRAY

'VAYA' Filmmaker Akin Omotoso Shares The Theme Behind His Immigrant Story And Working With Ava DuVernay

The filmmaker talks about his experience of immigration in Africa, themes in VAYA and why its legacy will be a memorable one.

The inside of Ava DuVernay’s Los Angeles ARRAY production company headquarters feels like a bohemian oasis that serves as a beacon for untainted creativity. It’s a place where stories about brown and black people are safely created, archived, and honestly told through film.

Once in the main corridor light bulbs radiate the dimly lit living room space, as shabby chic furniture adorns the confines in the midst of wooden ceilings and walls. The sun shines through the front door, highlighting a small round crème colored table nestled between the couches; atop the table sits a stack of wooden and white coasters which bear the phrase, “Art Urges Voyages.” The three-line statement is a small vignette taken from American poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ poignant quote, “Art hurts. Art urges voyages - and it is easier to stay at home.”

Brook’s poetic prose is exactly the premise for one of ARRAY’s newly acquired films, VAYA (which is now on Netflix).  Nigerian filmmaker Akin Omotoso’s immigrant story follows three main characters moving from a small village to Johannesburg—each having a dream or mission to follow. The ending proves that staying home would’ve been much easier, but they all sacrificed everything in search of a better life.

Zanele (Zimkhitha Nyoka) is tasked to bring in a small child to the big city but finds that she could attempt to pursue her dreams of being a performer in Johannesburg. Nkulu (Sibusiso Msimang) is ordained by his family to get his deceased dad’s body but finds a dark scandal on the way. And Nhlanhla Xaba (Sihle Xaba) is drawn to the big opportunities the city seemingly promises until things take a turn for the worse. He trusts his cousin can help him get a better job, which sadly ends up being one laden with crime.

These three stories are based on the real-life tales of homeless people in Johannesburg. Omotoso crafted the film through their lens. VIBE recently chatted with Omotoso at the ARRAY headquarters where he spoke about the experience of immigration in Africa, the themes in VAYA and why its legacy will be a memorable one.

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VIBE: How is immigration like in Africa and how welcoming is the culture in the continent’s different cities to outsiders?
Akin Omotoso: Great question. There are multiple levels to it. People leave places of war to find better pastures and things like that. So there is a lot of cross migration. In my case, my dad is Nigerian and my late mother is from Barbados. We moved to South Africa in 1992 when I was seventeen—my dad got a job at a university when the apartheid was falling, so he moved us there. I wouldn’t say there is one way to migrate, there are different ways. I think in VAYA— specific to South Africa— because of the way the history is considering the gold mines and the dark tragedy of the apartheid, it meant that in order to get jobs you had to go to Johannesburg.

It was nicknamed the place of gold. People would leave home to go work at the mines for gold, and some would never come back home. Some came back home once in a while. So what you’re seeing in the film is the story of a country that was designed in a particular way so that people have to go work in the mines.

There is one character that has to go fetch his dad who worked in the mines that passed away. VAYA looks at South Africa’s particular social and emotional resonance; poems and songs have been written about men who go to work in the mines and have gotten lost.

What was it like when you moved to South Africa?
Well, you can imagine it’s 1992. We arrived in South Africa two weeks before that last whites-only referendum, and that referendum was that the then-president was asking the white minority whether they were going to co-sign on this new South Africa. The referendum was to say yes or no. With the benefit of hindsight, you arrive at a very pivotal point in that country’s history. And for me, it’s been an interesting journey watching the country grow—a new society trying to re-establish itself and what that challenge has been. When I was 17 all I really knew in terms of South Africa is obviously the racism, so to be going there was obviously an interesting experience—‘like what are we going to find when we get there.’

A lot of people forget that referendum, they had to ask ‘are we going to change the society or stick to this corrupt and brutal racist system.’ The apartheid was evil, so how do you reconstruct the society that’s been rooted in this kind of evil. As the country has made strides, there are still challenges. I’m one of those people that embraces the idea of a challenge how do you dismantle something that’s so ingrained and institutionalized to start to form the kind of multi-cultural society that is better for humanity.

Going back to VAYA, the stories of the three main characters in the film are based on real-life stories from homeless people. Why did you want to base this film on their experiences?
My company had done a TV series called A Place Called Home, which is based on a book called Finding Mr. Mandini, which was written in collective stories from people who lived on the streets. For us, it was an opportunity to look at the lives of people who live in the margins of society. You don’t always see that on television. For the most part, you always see the more aspirational, so at that time we were interested in exploring who else lives in Johannesburg with us. And after the TV series was over, we were approached by the community of writers.

When you live on the streets, life is transient. It started with the idea of ‘well let’s have a space and let’s talk about it.’ Then for people from the streets for those people it became a place of therapy. It became a place where your story is validated and over the years, the group shrunk to four guys who are also credited in writing it, and whose stories makeup what the film is based on.

Over six years it was really just allowed to cook and grow organically without too much pressure. It’s just this idea of exploring this interest that we had, what is our city and who are these characters in what aspect of the city.'

Something that really struck me was when Nwukul calls his mother and tells her that his dad has another family. I felt that moment was very detached because it seemed like she didn’t care, she just wanted him to return his body back to town. It seemed like that mattered more to her. What did you want to highlight by this?
The idea is that the man has gone to Johannesburg to fight for the family and dies. But you have to bring him back otherwise what will the neighbors say. People fall prey to those trappings of society we all have to appear far more together than we actually are—for me that’s what that moment represents. She doesn’t care. What she needs to happen is for his body to come back. It can’t be her fault, she has to blame someone else and that’s the pressure of society. That’s the reality of a lot of those experiences. I don’t think it's limited to South Africa I think it’s worldwide.

In terms of Zanelle's storyline, her relationship with the little girl she's traveling to Johannesburg with is very vague. Was that intentional?
The way we always imagined it was being about an opportunity. So someone in the village says, ‘the young girl has to go back to her mother.' Zanelle is an ambitious lady, so she says, 'if I’m hanging around here it’s a waste of my time. Johannesburg is where I need to go, so I’ll take her.'

I guess in the sense of the village community, she knows her as a family friend.  But the mission changes when she gets to Johannesburg. At first, she’s like, ‘I’m going to drop you off with your mom, and then I’m going to pursue what I actually want to do.' And in the process of pursuing that, she realizes there is something bigger than her and it’s this little girl.

The film, in general, doesn't have a happy ending. It feels like no one won at the end. Why is not having a happy ending important?
We do want everyone to watch the film though. (Laughs)  In this film, the idea was having gone through a coming of age. An origin story, the idea that life continues. When you leave the cinema and you see someone on the street, you might remember VAYA. And you might remember their story, and if you remember their story then maybe you be so quick to judge them and maybe you might just offer a smile. So I think that’s the idea. Let’s put an experience and an audience through what I think is a visceral and emotional experience so that we can free ourselves from some of the numbness when we walk outside and pretend certain individuals of our society are invisible.

How does it feel for you to work with Ava DuVernay?
It’s great. I’ve always been a fan of hers, and what’s she's trying to do with bringing stories all around the world. She's the perfect person to release this film, and we’re very happy that they responded to it when we shared it to them. This is the perfect partner because our goals have aligned and the urgency to keep these stories alive.

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Jacob Knight Steps Out Of His Father’s Shadow And Into Real Estate On 'Love & Listings'

Breaking into a new career can be tough for anyone, but Suge Jacob Knight is ready to concur the world of real estate in VH1's latest docu-series, Love & Listings.

In the official trailer, we meet Knight known to his friends as Jacob. As the son of the notorious Suge Knight, Cali native has dived into sports, music and fashion, but Jacob is ready to try his hand at real estate. While working on his real estate license, Jacob teams up with Agents of LA's Tai Savent, where he's able to use his celebrity background with work with the likes of Jermaine Dupri, Brandy, Ray J, Vanessa Simmons and more.

Joining him on his real estate journey is Taylor Schwartz, a rookie ready to make her own splash into the game. The eight, one-hour episodes will also include other budding real estate agents of color who are looking to overcome their own bouts of drama.

The series also features Zac Diles, a former professional football player, Ajani Scott, a part-time waitress struggling to become a real estate agent and Andrew Clinkscale, one of the top agents at a popular Beverly Hills agency.

Rounding out the cast will be Samantha Barrette an L.A. transplant moving quickly up the real estate ladder, Erik Miles, a lawyer-turned-real estate agent, entrepreneur and realtor and luxury real estate titan, Alexander Anu.

Love & Listings is executively produced by Entertainment One (eOne), Creature Films and Purveyors of Pop (POP), and produced by Relevé  Entertainment. Tara Long serves as executive producer for eOne with Mark Ford and Kevin Lopez for Creature Films and Nate Green and Matt Anderson for POP, alongside Holly Carter for Relevé.

Christopher Costine and Sean Matthews also serve as executive producers. Concept by Releve’s Holly Carter.

See the trailer along with the rundown of the entire cast below.

Zac Diles

Diles is a former professional football player and has since suited up for a new type of game: real estate. After eight years playing ball, Zac has built a network of clients out of his former teammates (and adversaries). Zac’s love for the ladies (including other agents) often gets him in trouble. Despite being in a relationship with Kat Tat from VH1’s Black Ink Crew: Chicago, Zac finds himself caught between his current girlfriend Kat and fellow cast member and ex-girlfriend Samantha, who is determined to get him back.

Ajani Scott

A part-time waitress struggling to fulfill her dream of becoming a celebrity real estate agent, Scott moved her hustle over to the world of real estate to make some money while she builds her professional network. Seeing her potential, veteran agent Erik Miles has taken Ajani on as an apprentice at his own agency. The stakes are high as Ajani learns to put her money where her mouth is, which jeopardizes Erik’s A-list clientele.

Taylor Schwartz

Despite her young age, she is a force to be reckoned with. She has the charm, smarts and beauty to reel in new clients, but her fiery temper often lands her in hot water, leaving her career in jeopardy. Working under Tai’s wing, Taylor begins to wonder if the “grass is greener” when fellow real estate competitor Andrew Clinkscale offers her a position.

Andrew Clinkscale

Clinkscale is a top agent at one of Beverly Hills’ most prestigious real estate agencies. However, Andrew wasn’t always on top. He grew up through the foster care system and was homeless twice in his life. He’s seen the bottom and is determined to never go back. Andrew’s professional and personal life soon collide as romantic rumors with another real estate agent begin to arise. Will the swirling affair rumors around the engaged “golden boy of real estate” bring him down?

Samantha Barretto

Barretto recently moved to LA and has quickly moved up the real estate food chain by joining one of the most prestigious agencies in Beverly Hills. While running in the same industry circles as her ex-boyfriend Zac, Samantha’s feelings for him begin to heat back up and start to affect her professional life.

Sarah Scheper

After overcoming personal struggles, Sarah has embraced her sobriety and turned over a new leaf in LA. While Sarah quickly becomes the queen of Beverly Hills real estate, her reputation is threatened when she begins an on-again, off-again relationship with Jacob which leads to friction between him and the other agents.

Erik Miles

Miles is a charming lawyer-turned real estate agent, a one-stop shop with his own imprint at a West Hollywood agency. The son of a successful athlete, Erik is willing to take risks to close deals which often pays off... but sometimes blows up in his face.

Tai Savet

Savet is eager to break bread (and the bank) with his unique LA-based brokerage firm as the go-to agent for the biggest names in show-biz. From Tai’s perspective, the future is bright and primed for expansion, especially with a roster of hip millennials on his team, including Taylor and Jacob.

Sarah Scheper

Scheper is a proven real estate power player who originally conquered the market in Orange County. After overcoming personal struggles, Sarah has embraced her sobriety and turned over a new leaf in LA. While Sarah quickly becomes the queen of Beverly Hills real estate, her reputation is threatened when she begins an on-again, off-again relationship with Jacob which leads to friction between him and the other agents.

Alexandre Anu

Anu is a real estate titan at of one of LA’s premiere brokerage firms and continues to grow his elite clientele. All of his listings are high-end luxury properties with an extensive client roster of A-list celebrities and top business executives.

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Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Lashana Lynch Reportedly Lands Role As First Black Woman '007'

Actress Lashana Lynch is poised to make history, according to new reports. The Daily Mail states the 31-year-old thespian will reportedly take on the role of "007" in the upcoming Bond 25 film. This will make her the first black woman spy to command the role since the franchise's decades-long inception.

Lynch's character (Nomi) is central to what is being described as a critical scene. She'll reportedly star as a secret agent who takes over the alias (007) while being tasked with bringing James Bond (Daniel Craig) out of retirement for a new mission, E! News adds.

"There is a pivotal scene at the start of the film where M [played by Ralph Fiennes] says, 'Come in 007,' and in walks Lashana who is black, beautiful and a woman," a film insider said to the Daily Mail. "It's a popcorn-dropping moment. Bond is still Bond but he's been replaced as 007 by this stunning woman."

Bond 25 is directed by Beasts of No Nation's Cary Joji Fukunaga and co-written by Killing Eve's Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The upcoming motion picture will premiere in April 2020.

Lynch was nominated for Female Performance in Film at the 2019 Screen Nation Film and Television Awards. Her breakout movie was Captain Marvel where she played Maria Rambeau. Lynch also played the lead role in Shonda Rhimes' period drama series Still Star-Crossed before it was canceled after its first season in June 2017.

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Courtesy of Lion King

Chiwetel Ejiofor Proves The Real Star Of The 'Lion King’ Is Actually The Villain

The bad guy makes the movie what it is. He tests the parameters of your empathy, understanding, and grace, forcing you to see what you’re made of.

This particular bad guy lets resentment fester and rumble in his belly, as his mighty and righteous brother merits admiration and reverence from faithful servants. When it comes to brains, he knows he has the lion's share, but it’s the permanent mark in the shape of a dagger slicing above his left eye that reminds him his brother is the sole proprietor of brute strength.

It's this same villain who deputizes himself among the others also tired of begging for whatever's left to orchestrate a felony so sorrowful, it plucks at your Adam’s Apple, pushing your screams and cries back into your throat because what’s done cannot be undone.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s embodiment of the deceitful Scar is just that: a wondrous amalgamation of pain, defeat, rejection and will bursting onto the big screen in Disney’s live-action remake of the Lion King. Jeremy Irons’ 1994 version of the antagonist, while still deceptive, encapsulated a bit of theatrics and bounce. The only telltale sign of Scar’s venom was his flowing jet-black mane. Ejiofor’s 2019 portrayal is bloated with greed, anger and the need to control. The use of the word “bloated” is hyperbole, of course, as on-screen Scar is thin, almost emaciated and physically hungry for the dominance he feels he’s owed.

There’s no need to rehash the 25-year-old film. Moviegoers can be reassured to know director Jon Favreau stayed true to the movie’s heart. He often replicated important scenes detail for detail, including the quintessential opening sequence with the sun rising over the Pride Lands as zebras, antelope, rhinos and other wildlife assembled to meet and bow to the future king.

And while we know Mufasa dies, his live-action death stings even more.

As Hans Zimmer’s “To Die For” thunders, the wildebeest come running down into the gorge and your 10-year-old self tells Simba to run. Hope is still a possibility after Mufasa saves his cub and leaps from the stampede onto the rocks and climbs to the top. Then your 34-year-old self soothes your inner child, because what happens next—the grave offense Scar commits—is irreversible.

But what most miss about Scar, even after 25 years, is under all of his deplorable ways lies his one admirable quality: ambition.

Scar saw himself among the greats and envisioned a kingdom under his rule. He let nothing get in the way of his chosen destiny, including his weak older brother. Scar couldn’t and wouldn’t settle for being a knight, or a duke or a lord. Scar wanted to be king, so much so betrayal and murder were mere casualties in the race to rule Pride Rock.

Who among us has ever gone after our future with more reckless abandon?

Ejiofor understood this insatiable need to ascend to the greatness Scar believed he possessed, and he channeled that with his voice. The east-London native’s lilt took on whatever emotions needed to give way to Scar's true intentions.

Whether it be the flat, emotionless way he dismissed Simba into the den. (“I don’t babysit,” he sneers) or the way he let his words dangle in the air as he covertly described life as Mufasa's brother ("Others spend their lives in the dark...begging for scraps"), Ejiofor’s reinvention of Scar is more than just a voice over. It’s the inflated and arguably updated blueprint Irons left behind.

Ejiofor showed that to embody Scar meant more than reciting lines from a page. It meant whatever couldn’t be expressed through physical emotion seen on screen had to be demonstrated in the inflections, whispers, and passion of his voice. Scar’s lustful desire to outshine his brother and his brother’s memory was on full display whenever Scar was on screen and Ejiofor zeroed in on that, even from behind a microphone.

With fervor, and indignation Ejiofor’s portrayal of Scar proved why, without him, Simba would be nothing. Without Scar, Simba wouldn’t have to face his biggest foe or know how to. While Mufasa taught him compassion, loyalty, and love, Scar taught him to fight. Scar is a liar and a cheat and will stop at nothing to get what he feels rightfully belongs to him. And yet, as vile as Scar is, he's also the unintended teacher.

Ejiofor knew that deeper than his fury and his jealousy, Scar was more than just a bad guy. Scar was an instructor who made Simba and audiences examine themselves and Ejiofor’s performance underscores that. Does it feel good to give Scar his flowers? Of course not. I wouldn't spit on Scar even if he were on fire. But let’s face it, there would be no Lion King if Simba didn’t have to fight for his throne.

So to Scar and to all the bad guys who help us roar a little bit louder, thank you for the unintended lesson.

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