What Why Me?’s Nikki Fagbemi Wants You To Know About Sickle Cell Anaemia

Photo: Courtesy of Sky Arts.
When actor and east London native Nikki Fagbemi finally put pen to paper to write her first short film, she set herself one condition: it had to be funny. “Have you watched After Life by Ricky Gervais?” Fagbemi says over Zoom. "Well, I decided that if I was ever going to create a film about my health, sickle cell anaemia and other invisible illnesses, I would want people to laugh and cry,” the actor tells Unbothered. As part of Unearthed Narratives, a landmark short film series created in partnership with DBK Studios, the actor and writer’s short film Why Me? is to be released to Sky Arts on Thursday, 7th April. The series, bolstered by DBK Studios founder Koby Adom, sees five films from five up-and-coming Black British filmmakers, covering a wide range of themes set across different generations, such as caring for a parent, social media culture, racism in 1950s England, London housing estates, and in Nikki Fagbemi’s case, sickle cell anaemia. 
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By name and nature, Why Me? is a black comedy about a young Black British woman, Naima, attempting to juggle her lacklustre job at a local bookies, a demanding mother and her ever-pinging phone. All the while Naima is privately dealing with her sickle cell diagnosis, an inherited blood disorder that predominantly affects Black people of African and Caribbean descent. The incurable disease is said to affect 15,000 people in the UK and sufferers often deal with extreme pain (known as a “crisis”) as sickle-shaped red blood cells block blood flow to vessels, as well as life-threatening infections and regular blood transfusions. Like Gervais’ dark comedy about cancer, Fagbemi’s short film – where she also stars – manages to find humour in Naima's struggle; you laugh at the eccentric characters that frequent the chaotic bookies where she works and cry with Naima when her illness stops her demanding life in its tracks. 
Before penning Why Me? Fagbemi previously starred in Russell T Davies channel trio hit show Banana, which was picked up by Netflix in October 2020, at the time she had left the creative industry in 2019 due to ongoing health battles. Much like her character Naima, Fagbemi has dealt with sickle cell anaemia for many years, however, when it came to her career in acting she also felt it was something she had to hide. “​​I actually quit acting and went and got a serious job in finance as an analyst," she says. "I was struggling with how to balance my health and acting. It was such a difficult thing for me and back then I always thought I had to keep it a secret. So, essentially made things harder for myself."
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“I thought [my health] held me back in so many ways but now I see talking about my health is also a strength and it's helping so many people.”

Fagbemi would eventually leave her successful role in the finance world — where she was also hiding the severity of her illness — and return to acting. With the support of mentors, her first foray into TV screen writing has also meant embracing her own story in a way to highlight a condition that is “not seen enough” and “not spoken about enough.” “I was so scared of being seen as the sick girl," she adds. "I always wanted to accomplish something away from my illness but Koby [Adom] told me that [Unearthed Narratives] was a great opportunity to tell a story about my health. I thought [my health] held me back in so many ways, but now I see talking about my health is also a strength and it's helping so many people.”
Why Me? is only 15 minutes long but Fagbemi has managed to detail Naima’s dizzying and overwhelming world with more than a few laughs in between. Ahead of Why Me?'s TV release, Naima told Unbothered how she gained the courage to share the spotlight with an illness she once tried to hide.
Unbothered: The betting shop feels like somewhere I’ve definitely come across. How much of Why Me? is it based on your own experiences?
Nikki Fagbemi: “Funnily enough I’ve worked in a betting shop before, as well as a train station. When I was there so many things would happen and I kept thinking why hasn't a show been made about this? Back then I was just an actress and I couldn't see myself as a writer; it was literally my dream and then fast forward to late 2020… I’ve come full circle."
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Naima’s life is described as “a Jenga set of problems waiting to fall.” Do you relate to Naima in any way?
“Definitely. Naima is a very introverted person. There's so much happening around her but because of her illness, she's so petrified of being seen as the sick girl so she always tries to show up for everyone around her. She’s the kind of person that keeps pushing, because she believes if I don't go into work, my manager is going to be on my case. I've got to do this with my mom. She always wants to show up for people when she needs to show up for herself. She spreads herself thin but no one around her can pick up that she’s struggling. That was really intentional because that's my experience. There's days when I'm okay but there are days when I’m in pain but you don’t know. There's been days where I've had a 'crisis' in a work bathroom, freshened up and returned to the office, like 'what's for lunch?'
Naima has to get to a point where she has to decide to pick her health over everyone. Because I had to go through that. And wanted to take the audience on that journey.” 
There’s a heartbreaking moment in the film where Naima has a 'crisis' due to her sickle cell. How difficult is it to play an experience so close to your own?
“I actually didn't want to play Naima at first because it is so close to home for me and I thought it was going to be hard for me to go to that emotional place. In fact, the day we shot that exact scene in an old hospital building, there was no electricity and it was freezing cold. I actually had a 'crisis' on set and it was so scary because that was one of the reasons why I didn't want to play the role. I immediately worried about the budget from Sky – that we only have three days to film it – and if I get sick, that’s money down the drain. By the time we filmed the scene, I was able to draw directly from this experience. It grounded me and it reminded me why I'm doing this and why I'm telling the story and who I'm telling the story for."

Before Why Me? have you ever seen sickle cell anaemia explored in drama and TV before?
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“I've wanted to be an actor since I was 15 years old but I didn't actually pursue acting as a career until my early 20s. I think if I'd seen someone on screen with my condition that would have probably inspired me to go for it a lot sooner.”
What do you want audiences to understand about sickle cell anaemia and other illnesses through the film?
“[When writing Why Me?] I just kept on thinking there isn't any [show, movie or play] that I can draw inspiration from. That’s what also made me realise why I had to do it. I've complained about the lack of representation my entire life, how sickle cell anaemia is not seen enough and not spoken about enough. So I really hope Why Me? is the start of the conversation. Talking about conditions like sickle cell shouldn’t be taboo. I think there are people out there that do want to have the conversation, but they don't even know how to go about it or feel they should tread lightly because it’s a delicate issue.”
What do you think will be the lasting impact of Unearthed Narratives for Black filmmakers?
“I'm so excited because I think these short films are going to touch so many hearts and it makes me so emotional to think about it. It just shows why representation is so important and why Black filmmaking is so important. The impact this is going to make on the next set of filmmakers and the stories that they're going to write and create is huge because now they know that there's a space for it and so many people need to hear their stories.”

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