There are the obvious political and bureaucratic obstacles. But for immigrants from West Africa in particular, sometimes the social challenges of relocation can be just as daunting.
That’s the focus of Tazmanian Devil, the debut feature from Dallas filmmaker Solomon Onita Jr., which will premiere online this weekend as part of the prestigious American Black Film Festival.
Onita’s locally shot coming-of-age drama tells a semiautobiographical culture-clash story of a Nigerian teenager from a strict church-going family who moves to Texas and pledges a fraternity as a way to make friends.
“When an immigrant comes to this country, how do they adapt to this environment and be more Americanized?” asked Onita, a first-generation American born and raised in Houston, whose parents emigrated from Africa during the 1970s.
“There’s a lot of things they taught me about Nigerian culture,” he said. “But they also had to adapt and realize that we’re in America now, so things are done differently here.”
Specifically, the film follows Dayo (Abraham Attah), a Texas newcomer trying to reconcile with his estranged father (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), a devout yet demanding pastor. However, when a classmate (Kwesi Boakye) urges Dayo to join a fraternity, the subsequent hazing conflicts with his traditional values.
Onita pledged Alpha Phi Alpha as an undergrad at UT Arlington. Although the names of the fraternity and the college are fictional in the film, many of the initiation details mirror his own.
Other narrative aspects were gathered from immigrant acquaintances who struggled with adjustments involving religion or relationships in their new home.
“I have a lot of friends who came over from West Africa. I was always fascinated by what they let go to find comfort here,” Onita said. “People think they know what’s best for you better than you do. You should follow your spirit and carve your own path.”
Onita left Arlington to attend film school at Loyola Marymount University in California. After earning his master’s degree in 2016, he worked as a freelance writer and editor in the film industry. The following year, he finished this script and began to shop it around.
He knew all along that he wanted to return to Texas, and specifically Dallas, to shoot it. Production began in January 2019 around the area — college exteriors were filmed at Wiley College in Longview — with a mostly local crew.
“I wanted to feel that sense of community that I remembered when I came here,” said Onita, who stayed in Dallas to live after finishing the film.
Actors of African heritage comprise several key roles, including Attah (Beasts of No Nation), a native of Ghana who moved to the United States to attend high school.
“He was actually living the life of Dayo currently. It’s very natural and authentic to him. He could bring things to the role that I didn’t conceive of. He told me about his experiences and how he’s perceived back home,” Onita said. “Actors of African descent know about that duality of culture.”
Onita’s script got a major boost with an endorsement from filmmaker Benny Boom (All Eyez on Me), a fellow member of Alpha Phi Alpha who signed on as an executive producer. So did Cash Money Records co-founder Birdman, which added more clout.
After his graduate thesis short film, Joy, premiered at ABFF four years ago, it was picked up for broadcast by HBO. Onita hopes his first feature likewise will find an audience — and a distributor — following its virtual debut. It also could be a springboard for future success.
“I’m interested in telling other kinds of stories, too,” he said. “I would like to grow and evolve and show different aspects of myself through storytelling.”
You can watch Tazmanian Devil for free through Aug. 30 by registering for a festival pass on the ABFF website.