Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje on sense of accomplishment he felt bringing the story of Bilal to life
Suicide Squad and Lost star Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje returned to Dubai this week for a red-carpet screening of the animated film, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, ahead of its release on Thursday (September 8).
The screening on Sunday of the region’s first feature-length animated film – the debut offering from Dubai animation studio Barajoun Entertainment – marked the culmination of an eight-year journey by co-director and producer Ayman Jamal. This fact, and the importance of the story, was not lost on British actor Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who provides the voice of the title character.
“Of course, it’s the first fully funded animated feature from the region,” he says. “But more than that, Bilal has a very sentimental place in Arab history – and I don’t take that lightly. I think it was unanimously appreciated [on Sunday]. There were families sitting around me embracing and hugging [with] this real sense of euphoria.
“It was a real accomplishment to even bring such a character to the screen at all. It’s been a real journey, not just with the film but with the culture and the people.”
The film tells the true story of Bilal Ibn Rabah, an African slave in seventh-century Mecca who, against the odds, fights for his freedom and eventually becomes a great leader. He holds a legendary place in Arabic folklore, and Akinnuoye-Agbaje was determined to do him justice.
“It’s a true story that’s embedded in people’s consciousness and I felt it was crucial to find the right voice,” he says. “I needed to find a voice that would be accepted by the Arab world, but could also translate to the western audience. It’s a tough balance to find.”
The release comes after a hectic nine months of festival screenings, which kicked off at the Dubai International Film Festival in December, also with Akinnuoye-Agbaje in attendance. The film has been well received wherever it goes, even picking up an award at the Cannes Film Festival’s animation day.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s work schedule prevented him from attending all festival screenings, but he has been following the film’s progress while shooting blockbusters including Suicide Squad and Concussion.
“I was really pleased to hear about the award at Cannes,” he says. “It was crucial that this project can travel, so to be honoured at the world’s biggest festivals was a real success. The fact the film was honoured in France is quite significant given some of the things that have been said about the Arab world recently. A lot of these opinions and views are born out of fear and ignorance – stories such as this make people aware of other cultures and breaks down barriers and fights that fear. Movies have always been a great medium to share views and cultures.”
Bilal is due out in North America and Europe next month.
“I’m looking forward to helping with the film’s transition when it comes to Hollywood,” says Akinnuoye-Agbaje. “The unique thing with Bilal is that, yes, it’s a true story, but the principles and values are very universal. They relate to discrimination, social injustice and equality, which we’re still fighting for today – these are big universal notions that people can relate to regardless of religion or culture.”
Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s star is rising, not least thanks to his role as Killer Croc in the record-breaking DC Comics box-office behemoth Suicide Squad. He has also finished shooting two movies – cop thriller Wetlands and indie drama Elizabeth Blue.
“The great thing about doing big movies, such as Suicide Squad, is that it gives me the freedom to choose some of the smaller projects that really mean something to me,” he says. “Acting’s not just about the final cut for me – it’s a chance to learn about new things and new cultures, just like I did with Bilal. I’m in a really happy place in my career right now.”
• Bilal is in cinemas now
Published: September 7, 2016 04:00 AM