Joel Okuyo – the Rise and Fall of Africa’s Brad Pitt

He walks swiftly around the room, one hand nursing a drink and the other in his pocket. He doesn’t say a word, but it is vividly clear he commands respect.

He is rich, lean, gentle, though rather rough on the edges his body piercings aren’t a thing you would imagine a guy of his stature to have, let alone that wet-look curly hair…

If you asked any interested females, this guy is simply eye candy rather than husband material more of a fantasy. One day you will catch him in a lewd threesome and on another on top of a hill aimlessly staring at cars moving.

His name is Wycliffe he is not real. He is a fantasy created by film director Matthew Bishanga, alias Matt Bish, for his debut, the 2007 runaway hit thriller, Battle Of The Souls. Wycliffe is the devil’s reincarnation that was perfectly portrayed by actor Joel Okuyo Atiku Prynce.

Then a Social Work and Social Administration student at UCU, it was his first role in a film. He had learnt about the film through an open casting call for actors on Kampala FM in 2005.

“I had been acting on stage since I was a child but my dream was to be in a film.”

He got the role, and just like his director Bish had predicted while in production, Wycliffe soared Okuyo’s career to great heights. He was nominated for multiple international awards, bagging five, such as Best Supporting Actor at both the African

Movie Academy awards in Nigeria (2009) and Balafon Film festival in Bari, Italy (2008), Best Actor at the Ubuntu Village in Colorado (USA) in 2010 and the 2011 Zanzibar International Film festival in Tanzania. Some in African film circles even equated his talent to that of American actor and sex symbol, Brad Pitt.

“I have done many films but Battle Of The Souls is very much imprinted on my heart,” he says.

Scaling heights:

But his road to the screen wasn’t an easy one. Growing up in a generation in which a career in the creative arts was frowned upon, Okuyo had a lot to prove to his father, Major Gabriel Francis Atiku, that acting was indeed the right path for him.

“My mother had seen me act before, thus wasn’t surprised but my dad!”

To make matters worse, Battle Of The Souls wasn’t a big-budget movie, such that whenever Bish ran out of finances, shooting would stall as he scrambled around, shooting music videos for artistes, in order to raise more cash. To Maj Atiku, this was simply time wastage, and by the time Okuyo graduated from university in 2007, he had secured a ‘proper’ job for his son.

“I turned the job down and stuck with the film guys,” he says.

However, when Okuyo started winning awards and globetrotting, all because of a role in a single movie, his father too changed his mind about his son’s career choices. Before he knew it, his son’s face was featuring on MTN billboards all over Africa as the face of Blackberry.

“Today, me and dad are so cool,” remarks the 31-year-old actor, adding that his acting so changed his father that he is now also being flexible on Okuyo’s siblings and their career choices.

That role also opened doors for bigger projects. He was cast in ‘shorts’ such as Journey To Jamaa (2011), A Good Catholic Girl, On Time, Looserpool and full-length films that include Mariam Ndagire’s Hearts in Pieces (2009), Joel Karekezi’s The Pardon (2013) and another one with Matt Bish, State Research Bureau (SRB) (2011).

He has also done a number of international TV shows like Banged Up Abroad (2008), directed by Paul Berczeller for National Geographic, Discovery Channel’s Raised Wild (2012), MultiChoice’s Kona (2013) and as well as his best depiction of an African hustler, Lost In Africa (2009).

Controversies:

But like most artistes, it is rather difficult to run away from controversy, and Okuyo has had his fair share. In 2012, he was cast by David Cecil to play the lead character, Samson, in the highly-debated stage production, The River And The Mountain.

Written by Beau Hopkins, a British playwright living in Kampala at the time, and directed by Angela Emurwon, The River And The Mountain was about a gay man’s struggle to live in a community where people like him were passionately loathed. Due to the subject matter, the production was blocked from showing at the National theatre where it was scheduled to run eight times. The producer was later arrested and deported.

Talking to France 24, an international news channel, Okuyo noted that he had his fears when he first read the script

“I really wanted to play the character of Olu, who is Samson’s best friend. But the scriptwriter encouraged me to take on the role of Samson.

In the story, his character wasn’t only rejected by his best friend, but his mother tries to ‘fix’ him up by taking him, first to a witch-doctor, then to a prostitute.

“These things really happen in Uganda. I have a lesbian friend whose family organised ‘corrective rape’ on her, from which she contracted HIV. People turn a blind eye to such horrors.”

Okuyo suffered a backlash because of playing this character. Some people labelled him gay, while others called him a gay sympathiser.

Human trafficking:

But just as newspaper arts pages were beginning to forget about his role woes, Okuyo ran into some more trouble. While shopping in Kampala, the actor, on the morning of December 18, 2012, was arrested by plainclothes officers from the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) on charges of human trafficking.

This was after a city tabloid had run a story that claimed the award-winning actor was part of an underworld human trafficking syndicate responsible for selling girls to Asian countries as sex slaves.

This has since made him the subject of police investigations for the past two years, and still counting. For a man who was enjoying a thriving career, especially landing roles in international shoots, the allegations dealt him a powerful blow that left him jobless for two years.

UCU, where Okuyo was a teaching assistant, has since cut its ties with the actor due to the allegations. His endorsement deal with SABMiller, the producers of Nile and Club beers, among others, simply evaporated when they terminated their contracts with him in 2012. They had paid him $6,000 (about Shs 15m) to appear in the Nile beer TV aert that aired in Uganda.

In this famous ad, Okuyo portrayed John, a hard-working mechanic, who built a garage from scratch and made it one of the best. Because of the ad’s success, Okuyo got to endorse the company’s other beer products in Tanzania and Ghana, alongside other aerts such as Warid telecom in Congo.

With all these opportunities gone, Okuyo says he has sometimes struggled to put food on the table. But that is not all. His image, and that of his family, have been battered. In addition to being dropped by potential employers, his home has been attacked by mobs and hate comments have usually followed him on social media.

“I don’t blame anyone. I too wouldn’t want to associate with a human trafficker,” he observes.

Last year, Okuyo had got lucky when MultiChoice cast him for a recurring role in the boxing drama, Kona, however, when he made appearances at the Serena premiere, a person claiming to be an employee of Unicef wrote to the pay TV condemning them for parading a human trafficker at their event. He has not appeared on the show since. He could have earned Shs 1.5m per episode.

But, Okuyo claims that much of the accusations are ploys by someone trying to tarnish his image. He has regularly been presenting himself at the SUI though no witness has ever come out to testify against him, not even the one anonymously quoted by the tabloid.

A father of two, Okuyo is now praying that all this blows over. However, even after sinking to such low points in his life, Okuyo has not stopped looking for work. He is part of a yet-to-be released Kennedy Kihire film, New Intensions, and is currently part of a Dilman Dila TV series that is under production.

“It is heartwarming that even with such allegations, some people can still believe in you,” he says.

But for now he is a living trilogy that could aptly be titled ‘from grass to grace to grass again.’

Source : The Observer

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