The Story of My Skin and Heritage

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BEVERLY NAYA

Born Beverly Ifunaya Bassey in the United Kingdom, she has never looked back once she stepped forward, beating many odds. Radiant with brains and beauty, Beverly sparkles in thought and action. Stylish and systematic, her performances in movies are soul-searching and soothing. In few years with the stakes high, no mountain has been too high for Beverly to climb. With her latest documentary flick – Skin –, writes Vanessa Obioha, the actress has made another bold statement in Nollywood and her motherland
As she sat in the audience that gathered at Freedom Park, Lagos Island, to watch the screening of her documentary ‘Skin’, British-Nigerian actress Beverly Naya prayed that the essence of the film would not be lost.

It was the ninth edition of i-Represent International Documentary Film Festival (iREP) and ‘Skin’, a documentary on ‘colourism’ was selected as the opening film. It was also the first time the film was screened to the public. Featuring interviews with some celebrities like TV host and model Eku Edewor, social media sensation Bobrisky, Nollywood veteran Hilda Dokubo, among others, the documentary elicited gasps, side comments and laughter from the audience which ordinarily should calm Naya’s nerves.
“While watching the movie that day at Freedom Park, I hoped the audience understood it – that they got the message that I’m trying to push through the documentary. I hoped that I empowered people, got people to reconsider if they are even thinking of altering their skin tones,” said Naya.

Taking on a topic like colourism is a bold step by the actress whose acting career in the industry has only spanned eight years. But the subject is very dear to her heart, having witnessed firsthand some sort of bullying at a younger age. She recalled how friends used to mock her dentition and her looks back in school. Those days were very difficult for Naya who lived and schooled in London. Coming back home didn’t make things easier for Naya who speaks in a British accent. First, people questioned the authenticity of her accent.

“One of the things that really got to me back then was people questioning my accent. But I can’t help it. I was born and raised in England. I can’t help it,” she said with a tone of anger. “For example, a Nigerian moving to England, it will take them a while to sound British. It’s the same thing here. I have a British accent. I can’t take that away from me. It’s part of who I am. It wasn’t really about the fact that I got an accent but it was that people were trying to question if it was authentic.”

Naya added: “What they hear is a diluted version of my British accent. How I speak to my British friends is very different from how I speak to my Nigerian friends. If I use my normal British accent, nobody would understand what I’m saying. It is the toned down version that I use in movies. I hear people say they are not sure if my accent was real or if I even schooled in England. It is hilarious!”
Naya studied philosophy, psychology and sociology in Brunel University, Uxbridge, before moving to Roehampton University to study filmmaking and scriptwriting. As the only child of her parents, she discovered her love for acting while studying in Uxbridge. By 2010, she packed her bags and jumped on the next flight to Nigeria. Her mission was to conquer Nollywood. She was, however, in for a big surprise.

“It took awhile for me to get over bullying. When I first joined the industry, particularly the first four years, anything that people talked about me got to me. I was wearing it like a coat and agbada. Everything they said used to get to me,” she recollected.
“I didn’t really know who I was. I was still finding my feet. Looking at a young girl in her 20s coming to Nigeria to conquer the industry and then realising that it was a different culture, different people and different ways of having a conversation. Because I was constantly trying to fit in, trying to be a people pleaser, it affected me as an actress. Instead of being myself and expressing myself, I was trying to be someone else, even in films.”
She tried too hard to speak like a Nigerian even though it was impossible for her at the time. She tried to act the Nigerian way but that did not help her performance in any positive way as she kept getting bad reviews.

“Once, a film I featured in got bad reviews but I really liked the movie. I remember being at an event and I got a Google alert and it was another bad review but this was the worst,” said Naya with a sigh. “The headline was: ‘Beverly Naya Should Quit Nollywood, She Doesn’t Stand a Chance’. But look at me today.”

Indeed, it has been a steady rise to fame for the young lady who clocked 30 this April. Her earliest reward was in 2011 when she was named the ‘fastest rising actress’ by City People Entertainment Awards. Apart from featuring in award-winning movies and TV series including ‘The Wedding Party (1 & 2)’, ‘Tinsel’ and ‘Skinny Girl in Transit’, ‘Skin’ marked her debut as a producer. Beyond the production credit the documentary was a healing process for Naya.

In 2014, she began a campaign ‘Fifty Shades of Black’ which essentially centred on inspiring and empowering young people to have self-love and self-worth. While having conferences and seminars where she spoke to people, Naya knew she needed a bigger platform to push her message across.
“I have always known that I will do a documentary. I knew that having conferences and speaking with people were not enough. My dreams and aspirations are bigger than that. I need people to have access to what I’m doing globally – to click on it and watch,” she explained.

With her campaign centred on anti-bullying, Naya was pulled to the world of colourism. Her findings revealed that it was a growing phenomenon in the society and is rarely talked about.
“Colourism exists in our society and it is a conversation that is not happening,” Naya said, adding, “which is why people can get away with a lot of things, offending people without realising that it’s harmful to their mind. People need to know their self-esteem and this is one way of doing it.”
Being a sensitive topic, Naya and her director, Daniel Etim-Effiong, who co-wrote the script, strived for balance. They gathered celebrities from different walks of life with different skin tones to talk about their experience with colourism. So one could see Edewor complaining about not landing a role because she wasn’t too ‘African’ and a darker British-Nigerian actress Diana Yekini lamenting how she was rejected because of her skin tone.

Naya explained further: “That shows you how weird the dynamics are. Yekini said she is not getting work because she is dark-skinned, that she is too African and there you have Edewor who is not getting the job because she is not African enough. So where do we draw the line, considering the facts that these women are African.”
One of the shocking revelations from the documentary was Bobrisky’s confession that he would love to have his normal skin tone back.

“It’s so stressful. You have to make sure you apply the cream in the right places so that everything will blend properly,” he lamented in the documentary.
Naya revealed that the internet sensation known for his queer effeminacy and extreme bleaching of his skin was willing to talk once he learned what the film was all about. “I didn’t influence his answer in anyway,” she admitted.

“I just allowed him to talk and express himself. It was probably an avenue for him to express himself. Maybe it was therapeutic for him; maybe it lifted some weight off his shoulders. I knew a lot of people would see him in a different light after that documentary.”
Another major highpoint of the documentary was the way Naya tied it to her heritage. The documentary marked the first time Naya would visit her mother’s hometown. That visit was an emotional one for Naya who gets teary-eyed easily (she is seriously working hard on that). Although, the essence of documenting her trip to the village was lost on some members of the audience, Naya believed that it was important to project the link between one’s heritage and self-esteem.

“At first, I wasn’t sure of the idea,” she confessed, “because I wanted to focus on the subject alone. Then the director brought up a point which was that why most people are easily influenced is because they are not in touch with their heritage and true identity; and having a clear understanding of what your heritage is all about and having time with your family and having them tell you stories about their past, your grandparents, forebears brings you closer to home and as a result to your identity. I believe that when we finally understand what our identity is, we will not be easily influenced.”
While her film highlights the harmful effects of colourism, Naya wouldn’t label it as an anti-bleaching advocacy tool.
“Just watching the teaser and trailer can give people the wrong impression,” she pointed out but argued that “it is not an advocacy tool for anti-bleaching.”
We highlighted the harms of bleaching one’s skin. But if you haven’t watched the full documentary, you can make assumptions which are what we basically do most times. We make assumptions without knowing the facts,” said Naya.

“I didn’t choose to make this film to bash or judge anyone. That is not my priority. My priority is to teach people how to love themselves as they are. And if in the process I can get a few people not to alter their skin tone, then mission accomplished.”
When many actors become producers or directors, they often produce fictional narratives but Naya is different.

“I have two reasons for choosing documentary to make my producer debut,” she said.
“First, in 2014, in an interview I said I want to do a documentary on colourism. Second reason, I wanted to go into production but I didn’t want to do so blindly. I would rather start with a documentary, understand it, and make sure I can actually thrive in this business before producing a film. Film takes a lot out of you and considering the kind of person that I am, I cannot attach my name to anything that I’m not proud of. It is about starting small and expanding from there.

“If I were to make a film, I have to think about my cast, location, crew, and script. I have to make sure that my film is incredible. I can’t just attach my name to mediocrity. I have to make sure I have the best location, the best crew. There is a lot that goes into it. Moreover, the budget I had which was N5.5 million given to me by Amstel Malta could only make a documentary,” Naya told THISDAY.

With the documentary premiere in March by Nivea, Naya’s goal is to get ‘Skin’ shown to university students across the country, then distribute it to other online platforms. Yet, she did not show any interest in Netflix which has become a preferred platform for top Nollywood producers. Naya would not give a reason why her documentary won’t fly on Netflix.
She said: “I can’t disclose that but Netflix is huge. It is a global brand and gives your work the opportunity to be seen all over the world. That’s why it is everywhere.”
Apparently, Naya has enjoyed a healthy dose of fame since her debut in Nollywood though she modestly refused to see herself as an established actress. The silver screen goddess believes she is evolving with no intention to go into directing – at least for now.