Genevieve Nnaji has been famed by fans, colleagues and critics as the Queen of Nollywood. Much of this renown owes more to her over two decades filmography spanning more than 80 films than to her landmark achievement with her directorial debut Lionheart which scored her a place at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival where it was secured by Netflix and became Africa’s first Netflix original film. One of those 80 films is Sharon Stone.
Sharon Stone hit Nigerian homes in 2002 but it wasn’t Genevieve’s kick-off. Genevieve Nnajialready had a burgeoning career, having stinted in the 1998 hit movie Most Wanted, played a supporting role Tunji Bamishigbin’s Camouflage, and gone on to win hearts playing lead role in movies such as Izu Ojukwu’s 1998 Love Boat and Fred Amata’s 1999 epic movie, Ijele. But it was the Adim Williams directed flick that established Genevieve’s career and made her a household name.
Genevieve Nnaji played the eponymous femme fatale with such perfection that for a while, she became also known as the iconic Sharon Stone. It wouldn’t be reaching to say that it was perhaps the notoriety of the character, Sharon Stone, and how audiences had confused the character for Genevieve Nnaji that inspired the fellow who published a story about Genevieve being in an illicit relationship with the then Vice President of Nigeria. Genevieve, never one to care about rumours about her had initially ignored this story but would debunk it years later in an episode of The Teju Baby Face Show.
Before we go further, let’s look at the film Sharon Stone and how her star-making performance made her a name to reckon with in the Nigerian film industry.
Genevieve Nnaji played Sharon (born Ulomma) John, a young law student, who uses her beauty and charms to ensnare men into doing her bidding. At the height of her games, she successfully juggled three men till she pit them against each other.
Although the film is a cautionary tale on female promiscuity, owing to the clime of its making (the early days of Nollywood were marked by moralistic tales), the film also has feminist undertones.
Speaking to her friend Jane (Steph-Nora Okere), Sharon confessed that she loved playing games on men and saw it as fun. She suggests, although with little clarity, that her motivation is her mother’s past muddy relationships with men that had served as a warning example to her. She says, “I’ve decided to pay men back in their own coin and show them that this is a woman’s world.”
Sharon’s thoughts would resonate with a good number of Nigerian women today thanks to the feminist wave sweeping the world. It however doesn’t take being a feminist to understand Sharon’s thoughts when one looks around them and considers the laxity with which the world treats male promiscuity and sometimes even encourages it, and then compares it to the case of women. The double standards.
However, in spite of Sharon’s ingenuity in dealing with the men, she meets her comeuppance in the end, and her friend’s cautioning “no one wins a battle against the world, no matter the cost“, prevails.
In the movie’s second part too, those words prove true as Sharon Stone, now born again and rechristened as Sister Favour to fit her new personality, is converted into the kind of Pentecostal churches where certain types of clothing and grooming are considered satanic and desecrating of a woman’s body—which is supposed to be a temple of Christ. She gives up the religion as soon as she discovers the hypocrisy in it and reverts to being Sharon the Stone. But another misstep and her plans of marrying an old rich man for his wealth fails.
Even in the year later sequel Sharon Stone In Abuja where she moved up the rank of the Abuja big girls by seducing politicians into signing big contracts for her, the world continued to prove itself a man’s world. Her lies and deceit were later uncovered and caused a fracas with the politicians, necessitating a change in career. This landed her into the hands of a don who then made her his drug peddler. Soon, she arrives her waterloo when a certain colonel Oniga, whose sexual advances she’d earlier refused, becomes NDLEA chairman and is out to get her.
If there’s anything like an actor’s year, 2002 was Genevieve’s year. She followed her dynamic performance in Sharon Stone with playing Esther in the cult classic, Blood Sisters. And a love sworn Rhoda in the classic romcom, Keeping Faith, directed by Steve Gukas and produced by Ego Boyo. This established Genevieve as an actor with the range to play very diverse roles.
Although her career is marked by mawkish love stories and romance dramas that has her love interests as either Ramsey Nouah or Emeka Ike, she chiselled out a way to play a number of very different characters. The Nollywood industry is a fickle one and film choices do make or mar someone’s career. Aware of this, Genevieve has been selective about the film she stars in; featuring in lesser films than her counterparts.
In 2003, she played Brenda, in a farfetched and misguided tale, as a girl who “resorts” to lesbianism after bad and misleading sex education from her mum aimed at preventing unwanted pregnancy but only succeeded in scaring her away from men, in the movie Women Affairs. In the following year, she featured in the international film Goodbye New York. She showed true strength and vulnerability in the epic film, Rising Sun as Iyanga – a woman traumatized by the sudden death of her husband and son.
By 2005, Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) launched and Genevieve Nnaji became the first recipient of the now highly coveted Best Actress in a Film award. In 2006, she featured in Mildred Okwo’s action thriller, 30 Days. In 2008, she played Olivia, a sickle cell patient living out the last days of her life in Tchidi Tchikere’s Beautiful Soul.
In 2009, she was Chioma, a woman who travelled to the US to help her sister uncover the mystery of a crime involving the murder of her husband and two others that she’s been accused of in Chineze Anyaene’s Ijé: The Journey. In 2010, she was Lola – a woman dealing with the trauma of a rape that happened on her wedding night in Mahmood Ali Balogun’s Tango With Me.
In 2013, much to the dismay of Nigerians who wished better authenticity with the film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half Of A Yellow Sun and clamoured for Genevieve Nnaji to play the film’s lead, Olanna, she played Ms. Adebayo, a minor role. In an interview with Oris Aigbokhaevbolo for The Africa Report, she explains her stance in taking the role, “I don’t believe in small roles. It was a big movie, but most importantly I think I owed it to myself, my tribe and my industry to bring the story home.”
In 2015, she produced the film, Road To Yesterday, a romantic road drama directed by Ishaya Bako. Road To Yesterday is an emotionally intense film on infidelity and matrimony. The film won Nnaji Best Film West Africa at the 2016 AMVCA (Africa Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards).
By October of 2017, Nigerians were thrilled with the news of her feature in the Hollywood film, Farming, by Nigerian-British director, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. And by the end of 2018, her directorial debut, Lionheart, had had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and had been acquired by Netflix as its first African original film. Lionheart would go on to be Nigeria’s first official submission to the Oscars, albeit later disqualified by the Academy for being ‘too English’.
Unlike Sharon Stonethat’s inadvertently feminist,Lionheart is intentional and bold about its feminism theme, highlighting issues such as misogyny and sexual harassment in the corporate world. In the film, Nnaji played Adaeze, a young businesswoman who had to shoulder the responsibility of saving her family’s road transport company from bankruptcy after the family’s patriarch’s sudden illness.
After the G8 ban (In 2004, Genevieve and seven other of her colleagues were banned from featuring in movies by the Actor’s Guild of Nigeria, claiming that they were charging exorbitant fees), Genevieve signed with a music label group in Ghana and went on the release the One Logologo Line album. Its lead single, No More, has now been renowned by her fans as a feminist anthem—the song’s lyrics tell the story of a woman fed up with an abusive relationship, and is now empowered to leave and/or strike back.
In an episode of The Truth with Olisa Adibua, when the conversation delved into Genevieve’s singlehood and Olisa sought to find out if the deterrent to matrimony is because she’s “looking for the perfect guy”. Nnaji reminded him of patriarchy and its unfairness, “I’m not looking. I’m a woman. We are not allowed to look.” And now, Genevieve identifies as feminist. A proud one at that. The first time she made this publicly known was in an interview for Women and Hollywood at the release of Lionheart. She said, “I’m a proud feminist who embraces her femininity. I feel sometimes, women are made to feel self-conscious and ashamed of their womanhood.”
And in a session at the 2019 London School of Economics Africa Summit, she defines her feminism, “My own feminism is just human rights. I’m a woman who has rights to her own choices, I can do whatever I want whenever I want. It’s just that simple. If I were a man, it would be the same thing. At the end of the day, I was born alone, I’m going to die alone, I breathe alone. So I definitely have the right to how I want to live my life.”
Genevieve Nnaji made Chude Jideonwo’s 150 Most Interesting People‘s list at the end of 2019. In his profiling of her and partner filmmaker, Chinny Onwugbenu, he revealed that they’d secured rights to some materials and are making big industry moves behind the scenes.
We can only wait and anticipate what the future holds for the Queen of Nollywood.