Who Are We?
Tunde Ibirinde (Ian Alsup) is graduating from high school. Anticipating the celebration, he and his older brother Ade (Sean Phillips) are putting finishing touches on the family’s suburban New Jersey back yard: the pool is clean, the barbeque is set up, the lawn chairs are arranged.
At the same time, Tunde is making his own plans. This even as his sister Simisola (Kerisse Hutchinson) arrives with her husband Alex (Robert McKay), and his mother Rhonda (Joy Merriweather) starts pouring the red wine that gets her through each day (“It’s for my nerves,” she explains—again—as her kids roll their eyes). Distracted by his siblings’ teasing, Tunde misses a few calls on his cell phone. When at last he answers, his surprise guest is about to land on their doorstep. He runs outside to meet the taxi and do his best to prevent the trauma likely to attend the arrival of his long-absent father, Dipo (D. Rubin Green). He’s too late.
Simi is most upset, angry at Dipo for his abandonment a decade earlier. Living in his homeland of Nigeria since then, Dipo has another family now, but has come back to the States for this special day, for which the movie is named, August the First. “My apologies, Simisola,” he says to his distraught daughter. “I did not want this to be a surprise for anyone. Is this a surprise for everyone?”
It is that. Among those feeling shocked is Grandma (Gloria Sauve), imperious and furious from her wheelchair. “You ain’t got nothing to say to me, either,” she barks at Dipo when he approaches. “We was better off without you. You shoulda stayed in Africa.” Little does she know how right her assessment will be. Dipo’s appearance instigates a day full of revelations—resentments and secrets, betrayals and schemes—some more egregious than others. “You didn’t think, Tunde,” accuses Simi. “That’s the problem.
Though no one specifies exactly what went wrong in Rhonda and Dipo’s marriage, though it appears to be connected to his unreliability and infidelity, and apparently her vivacious sister Janine (Monique Gramby), who insists, that though she loves her family, “I’m not like them.” What that means, however, is refreshingly ambiguous and various. No one in Tunde’s family is quite like anyone else. While Ade appears aggrieved at having to play father to the family at a young age, and though you might guess that Simi has married the visibly older Alex in search of a father figure, the film doesn’t make either hackneyed case. Instead, it leaves motivations looking complicated and inconsistent.
Ade’s protective attitude toward his brother is layered into his anger at their mother. Simi’s closeness with Rhonda is set alongside her sourness at her drinking, even as she also mimics that behavior, taking Rhonda’s glass repeatedly. Their manifest tensions might shape Tunde’s own choice in a partner, his girlfriend Elsa (A. Toni Sterrett) seemingly more compliant and less anxious than they are. Initially their interactions are lovely—tender and generous—but when he reveals to Elsa that he’s rethinking their plan (she’s on her way to law school while he attends business school), she’s torn, disappointed and furious, but also hopeful that his announcement that he means to travel to Nigeria for two years is more whim than reality.
In fact, Dipo resists that dream right away. “It’s not a good time,” he protests, suggesting that his own situation is unstable (“I live in a very small house, I share two rooms with three very small children”) and the government is “in turmoil.” Tunde leaves him on the stoop in a huff, frustrated that his plan looks thwarted. In fact, Dipo has his own scheme in mind, indicated when he asks Rhonda to let him stay with her in the house they once shared, just for a month or two, so he can earn money to bring his new family over from Africa.
Their conversation is initially shot from across the room as they sit at the dining table, a low and canted angle intimating the oddity of his request as well as her conflicted feelings (it’s clear that with all the anger she’s felt over so many years, she’s still also sad and yearning, for something long lost). “I realize we have a troubled history,” he soothes, “But I wish to make amends with everyone, especially you.” Rhonda’s face falls, and she catches her breath. Dipo looks at her hard and adds, “I need an answer by today.”
At this point, the film begins dropping heavy hints that Dipo has his own ulterior motives. His briefcase—locked—appears more and more frequently in frame, as young children run off with it and then Ade decides to break into it (with the services of a particularly skilled family friend). Dipo’s face and posture give him away as well, though the specifics of his machinations only become clear late in the film (“He’s not to be trusted with anything,” grumbles Grandma, “That’s all you need to know”). At the same time, Dipo exhibits a sensitivity to Simi that her mother, brothers, and husband don’t quite manage, though his intentions remain murky. And Tunde, so eager to redefine himself and reclaim his paternal heritage, begins to doubt his own desires.
Lanre Olabisi’s first feature—available now on DVD from Film Movement—offers an intricate portrait of relationships and individuals, histories and hopes. That the day ends without resolution is to the film’s credit. Graduation is only a beginning.