In Conversation with Joan Iyiola, writer and producer of Dọlápọ̀ is Fine

Ethosheia Hylton’s ‘Dọlápọ̀ is Fine’ (2020) is a coming of age tale that examines the topic of black female identity and its perceived incompatibility with the demands of western society through the lens of protagonist Dọlápọ̀, a young boarding school student. Strand sat down with co-writer Joan Iyiola to discuss in more detail the origins of the film as well as some important themes that it deals with, such as the ethical implications of human hair wigs, and the weight of intergenerational trauma within the black community.

How did ‘Dọlápọ̀ is Fine’ first come to be?

The film started off as a short story called ‘Sunita’ that was written by my co-screenwriter Chibundu Onuzo, who is also a novelist. I was the actress hired to read the story for Radio 3's Young Artists Day. I remember receiving the story and sort of stumbling over the words to begin with, because I couldn't quite believe that this was the first time that I was seeing my experience played back at me. I later heard her speak at an event that the British Library ran called ‘Africa Writes’ and once I saw that she was on the panel, bearing in mind that I didn’t know Chibundu personally at the time, I ran over to her like a fangirl and introduced myself. Her response to this was, “I know exactly who you are. You read my short story”. She recognised my voice! And so began our collaboration... We worked on a few projects after that but it wasn’t until about 18 months ago that I suggested that we adapt her short story for the screen. I just thought that visually, the message that we could convey about the nature of ‘hair’ and ‘name’ and the environments that we as black women exist in, as well as how we still have to try and be ourselves within these environments that weren’t made for us, deserved to be showcased.

What influences did you draw from when writing the script?

We wanted to create a film that was about celebration and positivity because I had just reached a point where I was done with seeing negative portrayals of the black experience and not being able to reconcile this with the experiences of those around me. The films ‘She’s Gotta Have it’ (1986), ‘Bad Hair’ (2020) and ‘Girlhood’ (2014) certainly influenced me. Of course, another massive inspiration was our cinematographer Yinka Edward. He was involved in the making of the first Nigerian Netflix film called ‘Lionheart’ (2018) and I remember watching that film and saying “Wow, look at beauty, look at black skin on the screen”. So when we got him as our DOP it was just beautiful because I didn’t have to explain. There was no need to urge him to make sure that the lighting was as it should be and that we shoot people with beauty because it was all part of his mission as well. Ethosheia [Hylton] was really able to elevate the script into something more than what we imagined. Her vision was inspired by 90s films like ‘The Craft’ and ‘Clueless’. She also recognised the importance of music in the film which is reflected through the wonderful afrobeat artists that have collaborated with us and given us some of their tracks to match the rhythm and tone of the piece.

Talk to me a bit about the character Daisy. I found her final interaction with Dọlápọ̀ to be particularly powerful. What did this moment represent to you?

I played Daisy in the film and despite what people may think, I genuinely didn't write the part for myself, but as we wrote more and more redrafts of the script, I got to better understand the complexities and nuances of Daisy as a character. I just hadn’t seen a part like this before. I actually had to petition myself to the director and try to convince her that I was right for the part. I’m so thankful that she said yes because I really love Daisy and I think there are so many sides to her that create such a full human being for the short space of time that she’s on screen. As for the scene near the end of the film, I interpreted the glance as being part disappointment and part shock, with all of this morphing into a sense of admiration because she witnesses what Dọlápọ̀ does and how she holds herself with confidence and pride in this environment. In the eyes of someone like Daisy, this wouldn’t have worked, so I think what we see in this short exchange is a journey happening for her. It begins to open up another possibility about the world.

People within Dọlápọ̀’s own ethnic community are often the ones to criticise her (e.g. her mentor Daisy and her parents) but it is her white friend Imogen who praises her natural identity. Was this dynamic created intentionally, and if so, what was the message behind it?