In the film, Enitan, a child of Nigerian immigrant parents, grows up with a British foster family in Tillbury, England. (Zephan Amissah plays the young Enitan, and Damson Idris portrays him in adolescence.) As a teenager in the 1980s, he is first tormented, then accepted, by a local skinhead gang. He is happy to share their company and even to spout their hateful white-supremacist rhetoric — despite the fact that he is black.
Exactly what enables Enitan to harbor this degree of cognitive dissonance is both the crux of “Farming” and a point on which this provocative if slightly plodding movie remains elusive.
The title refers to the practice, apparently common from the 1960s to the 1980s, in which Nigerian immigrants in Britain would temporarily “farm out” their children to white British parents while they worked or studied. Part of the film’s diagnosis is that Enitan, who grows up with black foster siblings but is mocked by white children from the neighborhood, develops a deep sense of self-loathing in childhood. The skinhead group, with its anti-immigrant and antiblack rhetoric, validates his feelings.
In a brief interlude when Enitan’s biological parents — the director plays his father — take him to Nigeria, he is so distressed that he stops speaking. After he returns (Kate Beckinsale chews on the role of his perennially exasperated foster mother), he covers himself with talcum powder to try to appear white.
Even before he encounters the skinheads, he insults a black teacher (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with a slur. And when the Tillbury Skins (as the group is called) strip Enitan naked and spray him with white paint, he wants revenge, and confronts them with a hammer — but his feelings from then on grow more complex.
At a turning point, Enitan assists the Skins’ getaway from a robbery by knocking out a police officer.
The way the shot is framed leaves his motives unclear. The Skins take him in. While the group’s leader, Levi (John Dagleish), tells Enitan he is a “pet,” and not actually one of them, the gang members seem intrigued by hanging out with him, baffled by his acquiescence.
For Enitan, whose racism is self-directed, hate may be more personal than it is for them.