Just don't say `no'

Gail Smith

Akosua Busia does not understand the meaning of the word “no”. The multi- talented actress and writer freely admits: “I come from privelege, and my sense of entitlement is the greatest thing in my life.” This unshakable sense of rightness has enabled Busia to capitalise on every opportunity and setback in the pursuit of her creativity. Her latest achievement is the screenplay for the film adaptation of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Beloved.
Busia, in South Africa as a special guest at the Women in Film and Television International Awards, was born in Ghana and raised in Ghana and Europe. Having started her acting career at 16, she has an impressive list of film credits to her name, including the role of Nettie opposite Danny Glover and Whoopie Goldberg in the screen adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Colour Purple, and the role of Bessie in Native Son with Geraldine Page and Matt Dillon.

Busia’s first acting job was playing the role of Juliet in an otherwise white cast’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet at Oxford University. She was in Oxford visiting her siblings who were studying there, when she landed the role. However, her talents were so impressive, she was offered a scholarship to the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

Upon completion of her studies, Busia applied for a visa to work in the United States, but was refused a work permit and told that “America doesn’t need any more black actresses”. Undaunted, she contacted a friend who worked at the US embassy in Barbados and went there to organise her papers. However, the friend had a little more than money in mind as compensation. They settled on a visitor’s permit and Busia left for the US, where she worked illegally.

She read Beloved well before it hit the bookshelves. Her sister, an academic at Rutger’s University, was given a manuscript by Morrison and she passed it on to Busia. The rest of the story is a bit like a screenplay in itself. Busia was so moved by the story, she had a vision that inspired her to write the first 28 pages of the Beloved screenplay and sent it anonymously to Oprah Winfrey’s company, Harpo. Winfrey read the adaptation by the unknown author and loved it, declaring that she had finally found a writer for the screenplay.

However, when Busia revealed that she was the mystery writer she was told she did not have enough screenwriter credits to take on the project. Besides, she was too young, too pretty and an actress to boot. Once more, Busia’s refusal to accept “no” galvanised her into action. She wrote an original screenplay called Seasons and submitted it to Harpo under the psuedonym Mia Oshwegus - an anagram of “guess who I am?”. The key people at Harpo were duly impressed and felt they had at last found the writer for Beloved. Busia’s persistence paid off, and Mia Oshwegus was commissioned to head up the Beloved project.

Seasons, which later became Busia’s debut novel The Seasons of Been to Blackbird, tells the story of Solomon Wilberforce, a man on an international search for home, love and sense of belonging.

Busia’s unquestioning belief in herself and her talents ensured that she had the stuff to take on Morrison’s novel. The book has established itself in the canon of academic literature, and no women’s studies course worth its salt excludes it from the list of prescribed texts. The novel is difficult, moving and complex, and one of the first pieces of writing to problematise mothering; and address slavery from the perspective of a slave. It carries many lessons for a South Africa still caught up in the mythology of the kind, nurturing, caring, selfless mother.

The novel is set in the period immediately after the abolition of slavery, and tells the story of a freed slave, Sethe, and her family. Beloved is the baby that Sethe kills in infancy, rather than see it sold into slavery. Busia, who brought her own baby daughter with her to South Africa, argues that the novel is likely to do more to subvert perceptions of mothering and motherhood than the film.

She is filled with admiration and respect for Winfrey, who despite being a phenomenon in America, still struggled for 10 years to get the film made.

While clearly proud of her involvement in the film, Busia feels that it lacks a solid understanding of the meaning and power of spirit in Africa. “In Africa you can feel spirit, you don’t need flashing lights and shaking furniture.” She feels that the Exorcist aspect in the film is a tad over the top, attributing it to director Jonathan Demme. Left up to her, the character Beloved, played by Thandie Newton, would not have been as babylike. “Beloved is a power - she is the power of the dead who’ve been wronged.”

Born into the Ghanaian royal house of Wenchi, Busia’s criticism of the film is based on her deep-rooted Ghanaian identity. “In Ghana, we take life seriously. We do not kill. We bury our dead. We are respecters of life -even if corruption is our middle name.”

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