In ‘JOY,’ actress Sope Aluko stands up to cultural expectations and  her husband to protect her American-born daughter

In ‘JOY,’ actress Sope Aluko stands up to cultural expectations and
her husband to protect her American-born daughter

LMU student’s short film drawing on his Nigerian-American heritage will air on HBO

By Christina Campodonico

Hear the name “Joy” and David O. Russell’s latest film about a woman who builds a business empire amid the strife of a multi-generational family may immediately come to mind.

But Solomon Onita Jr.’s “JOY,” which HBO begins streaming on Monday and will air on Feb. 5 as part of the network’s Black History Month programming, is a film that borrows from Russell’s in name only. Instead, the third year Loyola Marymount graduate student in film looks to his Nigerian-American heritage to tell stories that might not ordinarily be told in mainstream cinema.

An official selection for the LA Shorts Fest, the Black Harvest Film Festival and African International Film Festival in Nigeria, “JOY” focuses on a Nigerian immigrant couple living in America at a contentious point in their marriage.

In the film, Gabriel wants to circumcise his tween daughter Joy so that she can become a full and pure woman, according to the traditions of his native country. His wife Fimi, who underwent the ritual when she was a little girl, does not want her daughter to go through the painful procedure, known clinically as “female genital mutilation.” (The surgery alters or removes female genital organs for non-medical reasons and can cause infections, infertility and complications during childbirth.)

Discord seeps into the family. The film’s sensitive subject matter and brevity — just 15 minutes — makes the ensuing tension all the more gripping.

Having grown up in the states, Onita Jr. didn’t know anyone personally who had undergone FGM, but his mother, who immigrated to the U.S. with Onita’s father in the 1980s, and Sope Aluko, the Nigerian-born actress who plays Fimi, had known women who had. Onita Jr. turned to his mother and Aluko for their insight and perspectives.

“This film was heavily influenced by my mom, because when she was growing up she had a neighbor that she knew who was circumcised. The night that it happened to her [neighbor], she heard the screams and she remembered wondering what was going on,” says Onita Jr. “[Aluko] knew someone who experienced it and she also helped influence the story even more after I had casted her.”

Onita Jr. took these stories to heart, crafting a compact narrative that not only dives deep into the issue, but also examines how immigrant families contend with passing on traditions in a new homeland.

“I wanted to take a look at assimilation … because a lot of immigrants come to America and lose their culture completely, and then is that better for them or are there things that they should hold on to? Is it better for the kids that they’re holding onto them?” muses Onita Jr.
These are questions that the young filmmaker hopes to continue exploring professionally after graduation. He’s working on a feature that draws upon Nigerian folklore for inspiration and plans to adapt another short film of his, about a Nigerian boy who moves to America and joins a gang, into a full-length film.

“JOY” airs on HBO at 5:45 p.m. on Feb. 5 and is available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now starting Feb. 1.