Jimmy Akingbola always dreamed of going to Hollywood. As a black child growing up in a white foster family his idols were Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy. He would rush to the television whenever a black person appeared on the screen (which obviously was hardly ever), aching to create his own “encyclopedia of role models”. Decades later, we meet the British-Nigerian actor in LA, where he lives and is about to start shooting Bel-Air, a reboot of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Achieving his dream has made him question how he got here, and Handle With Care (ITV) is the profoundly moving result. “To understand you’ve got to hear my story,” he says in the opening frames, “because I still can’t quite believe it.”
This is a highly personal documentary about what it was like for Akingbola to grow up in a white family in east London. The subject of interracial adoption in a system where more than 40% of the children awaiting adoption are black yet black foster families are comparatively rare is complex and fraught. Akingbola’s film is not really about this debate, or the 90 young people who enter the care system in England and Wales every day, though he does interview other prominent black figures who were fostered, including the actor Lennie James and the athlete Kriss Akabusi. Mostly, Handle With Care is about Akingbola’s own experience. What comes across above all is simultaneously the lifelong impact of abandonment and a loving foster family on a child. It’s the scenes involving Akingbola’s foster mum, Gloria (who really is glorious), that are the most powerful. As Akingbola puts it, Handle With Care is “a love letter to my parents … both sets”. He pauses to bring his hands together. “I’m here because of them.”
The story begins with “little Jimmy”, played by a child actor in a few unnecessary dramatised re-enactments. The youngest child of Nigerian immigrants who came to England in 1967 – the same year as my dad, incidentally – the dream his parents envisaged quickly turned to a nightmare. Akingbola’s biological mother developed schizophrenia and his father, convinced she was having an affair, disowned Jimmy believing that he wasn’t his son. Despite the archive footage of National Front marches and police brutality, Akingbola doesn’t mention racism explicitly, but it was clearly a big factor in the breakdown of the family. In September 1979, his mother gave up her two-year-old child following an argument in the social services department. “She left, apparently abandoning her son,” says Akingbola, reading from the blue book he was given at the children’s home. “That’s really hard.”
In Northern Ireland we meet the Crowes, his foster family, with whom he remains close. Akingbola chats with his three siblings on a seaside bench, for the first time in his life asking them: “What was it like for you to have a little black brother called Jimmy?” They tell him about the abuse they received. He tells them that on family outings to Hastings and Devon when he said he was going “to Dean’s house” he was walking the streets all day because he didn’t want to “ruin the trip for you all”… because of “the looks”. On one of those trips, someone pulled a knife on him but he managed to hide the incident from his family. His brother wishes he had said something: “We would have protected you.” Everyone gets upset.
In an even more affecting scene, Akingbola goes home to see his mum with a bag of fish and chips. Gloria tells a story about how he came in crying one day when he was little, saying the kids he was playing with kept calling him a blackcurrant. Gloria told him to say: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” “But it does hurt,” she remembers him saying. Then he brought his hand to his heart. “It hurts right here.” She starts crying. Akingbola takes her hand.
Later, she recalls walking into the children’s home and seeing Jimmy, “the only baby in there”. He was sitting at a table with just his head visible, eating banana and custard off a big spoon. “We fell in love with him,” she says. “He was so cute.” She also remembers the little black girl who came up to her and said: “What about if I take my skin off?” She starts crying again. “It don’t matter what colour they are,” she concludes. “It was just Jimmy.” Of course, to Akingbola it does matter – all of it. And Handle With Care is also an illustration of the silence and shame produced by racism that all those who have experienced it know. The raw pain that resides within it, undisclosed for decades.
Finally, Akingbola visits his biological siblings, who stayed with their father in what they describe as a dangerous environment. “You grew up with a loving family,” says his sister. “You understand what love is.” His brother agrees: “That’s the powerful thing for me … Gloria’s quality of care.” In a story without easy answers, Akingbola’s conclusions are tentative and tender: “Maybe I did have it better.”