By ROBYN H. JIMENEZ
The Dallas Examiner
Filmed primarily in the Dallas area, Tazmanian Devil is a dramatic story of Dayo Ayodele, a young Nigerian immigrant – struggling to balance the traditions he was raised with and beliefs of his father with his new American college fraternity lifestyle.
After 19-year-old Dayo is accepted into an American university, he leaves his mother in Africa to move to Arlington to live with his father, Julius Ayodele, a strict pastor at a local church. Julius, portrayed by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (The Chi, Lethal Weapon, Heroes, CSI), abandoned Dayo and his wife in Africa many years ago.
As a college student, Dayo, portrayed by Abraham Attah (Beast of No Nation and Spiderman Homecoming), feels pressure to pledge a fraternity that is full of flair, loud music and females.
“I wanted to kind of examine what it would be like for somebody who first moved to the country and they decided to assimilate through a college fraternity,” explained filmmaker Solomon Onita Jr. “They find community and they find brotherhood and friendship through this fraternity, which, if you don’t know the African American fraternity system, you might look at it and think there’s something dangerous or there’s something taboo about it.”
Intensifying the gap between both lives, his father, considers the fraternity to be a group of devils and their activities to be evil.
“It comes to a conflict where the dad finds out he’s pledging this fraternity and the dad views it as evil,” the writer revealed. “He views it as something he doesn’t think his son should be doing. And then that’s kind of where the main conflict comes from – will he decide to stay in this pledging process with these guys that he pledged this fraternity with or will he listen to his dad and do what his dad wants him to do?”
Julius tells Dayo it’s his mission to serve God and tries to warn not to “play rough with Americans.”
“Be very careful of what you allow in your spirit, Dayo, especially in America,” his father preached.
Julius also criticizes Dayo for attempting to learn dance steps to modern American music, which he considers to be vulgar, while pushing his son to sing and worship God with him.
Dayo encounters additional conflict within the fraternity. Having not completely assimilated to the frat culture, some of the frat brothers consider him to be weak. He must decide how far he will go to prove himself.
The movie is more than a story about a young African man attending college. It’s a story about growing up and learning to become independent and make difficult decisions. It’s a story about learning how to balance Christian life and worldly explorations. It’s about balancing generations of traditions with a modern lifestyle. It’s about the importance of relationships – old and new – and knowing who to let in your circle.
Among the star-studded casts was Adepero Oduye (12 Years a Slave, The Big Short), who portrayed Dayo’s mother; Elizabeth Ayodele, and Kwesi Boakye (The Princess and the Frog and Happy Feet); as well as local actors such as Billie D. Merritt (Murder Made Me Famous) and Kenneisha Thompson (All Roads to Pearla, Dragon Ball: Xenoverse 1 and 2 and Dallas).
The film is rated R.
About the filmmaker
The movie was written and directed by Onita. He was the first director of African descent to receive the 2020 John Singleton Award for Best First Feature, which he won for Tazmanian Devil.
Born in Houston, Onita also attended school in Dallas. He began filmmaking in high school at a magnet arts school that focused on creative arts and the art of storytelling. He attended college at the University of Texas in Arlington. He earned his master’s in film at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he said he crafted himself as a film writer and director. He is also a 2020 fellowship recipient of the Warner Bros. Television Directors’ Workshop.
In choosing the name of his lasted movie, Onita wanted to draw a contrast between religion and the fraternity.
“I wanted to paint the picture of a fraternity to be the most evil thing you can think of, just coming in to it,” he said. “And then contrast that with how people generally view religion … then when you get to the end, you realize that these devils are more there for a protagonist, more so than the religion or Christianity. And it just makes you think, ‘How are these things serving us?’ Like, we put our faith in different things with religion or with different community groups, and is it serving us to our full potential. And I’m just asking the question. I’m not really answering it.”
He said the film was a blend of people and situations that he saw as he was growing up in Houston. He grew up in an immigrant community with many first generation and immigrant Nigerians.
“The way I did the characters, I based them off of people I met while I pledge a fraternity, because I pledged a fraternity as well,” Onita expounded. “I pledged Alpha Phi Alpha, so a lot of those characters and personalities are based off the people that were in my chapter and the people I met when I was in school. So it’s already kind of ingrained in me – on both sides, the religion and the fraternity part of it. These are just things I saw so much of, growing up.”
Onita identified with the main character, but said he also identified with almost all of the main characters.
“The perspective that every main character’s coming from is also a perspective that I share of myself,” he illustrated. “There’s one character who thinks – the father – that you should just follow the tenets of religion and have that guide you. But then there’s other characters who think that ‘Oh, he should just think for himself.’ Another character thinks, ‘Oh, he should follow the brotherhood and be there for his fam.’ These are all thoughts that I have. I put it into the film to lay them all out and have people choose which one fits them the best.”
He is known for creating films based on cultural clashes.
His first notable film was Joy, a short film about a Nigerian woman living in America who is trying to stop her husband from circumcising their 10-year-old daughter. It was aired on HBO.
“They say, ‘Write what you know,’ ‘Write what’s accessible.’ So, I know Nigerian culture very well. I know how it feels to be first generation – to be an immigrant. So I found that these stories were easily accessible to me to tell. So that’s kind of why I did Joy and Tazmanian Devil that way,” he said.
His other films included Witch Hunt, awarded the Best Documentary at the African International Film Festival, and Two Hand Touch.
“Moving forward, like the stuff that I’m writing now, it’s not really rooted in Nigerian culture or anything like that,” Onita concluded. “It’s more so broad to make it a bit more personal.”
Tazmanian Devil was released Tuesday on video On Demand and streaming services, such as Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.