Exclusive: Omar S. Kamara Talks African Giants and Barry Jenkins’ Inspiration


Director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Can Talk) and other landmark directors played a significant role in fueling writer/director/producer Omar S. Kamara’s dream of making impactful movies. But in his new feature film, the main inspiration came from his family.

Based partly on his own unique upbringing, African Giants balances family ties, comedy, and brotherly connection in a standout film that premiered at Slamdance Film Festival. The plot takes place over a weekend visit in Los Angeles, when two first-generation Sierra Leonean American brothers must navigate the changing dynamics of grown-up siblings after a surprise announcement.

“The seed of the idea came from my mom,” Kamara told MovieWeb. “When I was very young, she told me, ‘Be careful how you behave. Your little brother’s watching. You’re his hero.’ I remember feeling a lot of pressure because I was still figuring out myself.” Kamara went on to add:

“In the film, there’s a moment where the older brother is in a precarious position and a bit intoxicated. He’s embarrassing himself and the little brother takes him, sits with him, and makes him feel better. And that, I wish I could tell you, was not based off real life, but it was. My little brother did that for me. That moment was so impactful in our relationship, because here I was thinking that I’m going to be the hero and have life figured out, but my little brother was being the hero and taking care of me.”

Kamara shared more about his hopes for the film, and how first-generation experiences factor into his future projects, as well as the directors who inspire him.

The Ties of Family That Bind and Strengthen

Omar S Kamara and his film African Giants
Hard Knocks Productions

As a first-generation Sierra Leonean American/Virginia native, Kamara rose high and quickly. His short film, Mass Ave, garnered the Grand Prize at the DGA Student Film Awards, then was named a Finalist in HBO’s Short Film Competition at The American Black Film Festival before HBO licensed it and began streaming it on Max.

Related: The 10 Best Movies About Grown-Up Siblings

In many ways, Kamara’s mother became the genesis of African Giants, which he independently wrote, directed, and produced. The deeply moving indie drama is filled with pockets of levity, as it shows the strength of family bonds in the face of generational and cultural differences.

By all accounts, African Giants, which stars Dillon Daniel Mutyaba, Omete Anassi, Tanyell Waivers, Josh Lopez, Kathleen Kenny, and Scott Bender, was a passion project, raw with personal connection to Kamara’s life.

“I began with a bunch of conversations that my brother and I had over the years, which I kept. I’m very notorious for keeping notes of conversations if I feel like it was very impactful or meaningful, which my family thinks is very annoying, but I’ll be like, that’s a great thing you said. And so, I kind of copied and pasted and put it into the film, and we wrote it and made it, and now I can’t believe we’re premiering at Slamdance, so I’m thrilled.”

Inspired by Barry Jenkins, Damien Chazelle, and Destin Daniel Cretton

The brothers of African Giants dance
Hard Knocks Productions

In African Giants, Alhaji (Mutyaba) is an aspiring actor living in Los Angeles. When his law student younger brother Sheku (Anassi) visits, Alhaji is clueless about the big secret Sheku is about to drop. As the weekend unfolds, the brother’s relationship is tested. Kamara, who started writing the film back in August 2021, said he was inspired by a handful of sharp filmmakers to keep him going.

“My biggest influence in making this film was Barry Jenkins, Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land, First Man, Babylon), and Destin Daniel Cretton (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings).” He added:

They all had done micro-budget features before they went on to bigger things… I was inspired that they were able to showcase their voice and vision, then allow people to say, ‘This person knows what they’re doing and can actually handle a bigger budget.’”

Kamara also noted that he appreciated and was inspired by the structure of the 2011 British romantic drama Weekend, by Andrew Haigh.

Related: The 12 Best Movies Directed by Black Directors

Omar S. Kamara’s Future Projects

Looking ahead, Kamara hopes to leap from African Giants and create other rich character portraits. “Black people aren’t a monolith,” he shared. “Sometimes people can just put Black people into this box that we’re all the same and have the same experience.” He went on to elaborate:

“Growing up, my experience as a first generation African — my parents both being from Sierra Leone — was a thing unto itself. I went to school, and I behaved very American. Some people at school didn’t even know I was African. But when I was at home, I lived a very African lifestyle, ate African food, listened to African music. My parents spoke in a different language.

“My mission statement as a filmmaker is to tell these first generation stories in the mainstream.” added Kamara, noting that such stories aren’t shown enough on screen, if at all. “I’ve been approached by some filmmakers who are first generation, and they’re saying, ‘I haven’t seen this story on screen, or this little nuance that you did… I haven’t seen it in the theater before.'” Kamara continued:

I want to bring that to light — that’s the driving force behind what I do, and African Giants was the first step in that. The idea is to grow and have another film that’s about African identity and the difficulty of assimilation. But that’s in a sports lens. It’s actually like an MMA movie. I call it my version of Creed, but it’s about African identity.

Until then, there’s African Giants, which premiered at Slamdance Film Festival. Watch this space for updates on where to watch or stream the film.

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