More than four years after it premiered at the 2016 London Film Festival, British-Nigerian director Joseph A. Adesunloye’s feature debut finally sees the light of day. A languorous journey into social disaffection and familial rediscovery, White Colour Black’s long-awaited release is well deserved, featuring an understated central turn from the talented Dudley O’Shaughnessy.
Leke (O’Shaughnessy) is a promising London-based photographer, about to crack into the big time with a collection that has caught the eye of the Shanghai art world. He spends his evenings partying, all the while dodging calls from family about his sick, estranged father in Senegal. Leke’s sparsely decorated London flat is an ample metaphor for his life: stylish, full of aesthetically pleasing objects but ultimately empty.
The morning after a drug-fuelled foursome with his friend and two women, he sits on the floor of his shower gently singing to himself; his cold lack of fulfilment as clear as the grey light filtering through the bathroom window. Meanwhile, declarations of excitement about his new assignment in Shanghai are delivered in flat monotone; when he finally listens to the message telling him his father has died, calling him back to Senegal, it comes almost as a perverse relief from the depressive emotional purgatory of his London life.
The grey of Leke’s world (even his photography is in monochrome) is suddenly transformed into the brilliant yellows and blues of the Senegalese coast. Taken under taxi driver Assamane’s (Alassane Sy) wing, Leke slowly emerges from the blanket of torpor under which he has evidently been labouring for years, while his burgeoning relationship with Badewa (Yrsa Daley-Ward) is as passionate as it is tender. Their scenes together are among the film’s best, cutting from intense lovemaking to post-coital intimacy and the kind of easy conversation that seems to flow in the warm glow of its aftermath – all of which were notably absent in Leke’s London-based sexual exploits.
White Colour Black struggles to move past the comfy languor of its second act, so when Leke finally does arrive at his family’s village, it’s almost a surprising reminder that that was his purpose for visiting Senegal in the first place. O’Shaughnessy’s scenes with Badewa’s father, Monsiour Dabo (Wale Ojo) are effective, but without knowing what happened between Leke and his father – not to mention how long ago it was – it’s hard to get a real handle on Monsiour Dabo’s reminiscences.
Nevertheless, this segment has the film’s standout scene, in which Leke is finally accepted back into the village. Surrounded by singing villagers, one by one they stand any place their hands around Leke’s face: audio-visual poetry that stirs emotions and captures a moment in the way that only cinema can. So much of Leke’s time in Senegal is spent in confusion and displacement: no doubt the nuances of the ritual are as lost on Leke as they are to a non-Senegalese audience, yet its meaning is the film’s most powerful and legible.