Like the best of films, her career as a successful content producer and entertainment executive has had its twists and turns. But Melissa Adeyemo ’01 can pinpoint exactly where it all began.
“My career really started at Peddie, in my Modern Africa class,” she said. Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa” was on the syllabus, and the tyranny and genocide it detailed in late-nineteenth-century Congo Free State was something Adeyemo found “truly impactful.”
“It’s one of those films that I eventually would like to produce, or at least be a part of the production,” she said. “It was at Peddie that I really knew that I wanted to do something with Africa.”
Other Peddie classes inspired her to serve as a megaphone for the mistreated and misrepresented. In an American History independent study project for Raymond Cabot, Adeyemo examined the Japanese internment camps established in the U.S. in the latter part of World War II. What she learned affected her deeply: Tens of thousands of innocent Asians throughout the western coastal states were incarcerated as traitors of the state.
“Peddie told me stories that none of my friends in other schools were hearing about,” she said. “It put me on the path to advocating and telling the story of the other, the ones nobody actually hears about and/or cares about and/or knows about, and pushing that to the forefront. Peddie told me what my purpose was.”
It was at Peddie that I really knew that I wanted to do something with Africa."
Later, at Columbia University, Adeyemo watched a video of the 1985 Live Aid concert, which raised funds to support those affected by the Ethiopian famine. The dissonance between what she saw and what she — a Nigerian-American immigrant — knew to be true was striking. It further fueled her interest in taking the spin out of narrative and zeroing in on authenticity.
“Live Aid portrayed the poor African folk in a way that continues in most of the developed world today. And I thought, ‘I want to change that.’ That image had no bearing on who I was or where I came from, and I found it deeply insulting and problematic.”
Adeyemo majored in Regional Studies in Africa with a concentration in media and considered a career in journalism. Despite some doubts along the way (her own and those of her supportive but tell-it-straight mother, who responded to the choice of an African Studies major by saying, “We’re African; why would you do that?”), her exploration yielded more and more excitement in learning about African film.
“I took an African cinema course and an African lighting course. They made me realize the real artistry coming from the continent, and I wanted to be a part of it. That’s when I decided I wanted to work in African film.
“I probably could have come to media, film and producing a lot earlier had I not been scared of this thing that felt great and easy. I thought it had to be a struggle.”
Internships at CBS, a trip to Africa and a phone conversation with Ousmane Sembène, “who’s like the godfather of African cinema,” followed. “I decided that film was where I could be objective about what was going on in the world and say, ‘This is what’s happening.’”
Adeyemo’s inclination to keep her eyes and options open paid off with an internship at Spike Lee’s production of “The Inside Man,” along with a spot on Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” team. Several jobs later, she had made great connections, but she wasn’t able to move up and wasn’t getting paid. That was enough.
“I decided I was going to go after what I really wanted,” she said, and that was a paid position in African film.
After attending business school at New York University Stern School of Business “with a vision and a focus,” she joined the business development team at startup IROKOTV, an African media company that distributes Nollywood (Nigerian film industry) films online.
The company relocated her to Lagos, Nigeria, “because I was the only one on the team who had any production knowledge,” she explained. “I touched everything — acquisitions, film development, accounting, budgeting, on-the-ground producing, dealing with talent. That’s when I fell in love with producing and knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”
No matter how many times I get hit, I will get back up. I fundamentally believe in myself."
She is currently founder and producer at Ominira Studios in New York City, focusing on content from the global African diaspora. Her first feature as producer, “Eyimofe” (“This is My Desire”), earned three nominations at the Berlin International Film Festival, IndieLisboa International Independent Film Festival and Valladolid International Film Festival. Her first documentary, “Dusty and the Stones,” is her next project.
Adeyemo is also a creative producer for Indaba, what she calls “a lab that gets you networking and introducing yourself to people in the industry. It also gives you a seminal foundation on how to produce. Producing is such the Wild West.”
With so much on her plate now, as she works primarily in development during COVID-19, and ahead, Adeyemo’s resilience is admirable. “I have chutzpah,” she laughed. “No matter how many times I get hit, I will get back up. I fundamentally believe in myself.”