Nollywood, Nigeria’s movie industry, is a bit of a conundrum. Ranked the second largest film industry in the world for quantity of films produced with 2500 released in 2020, but this is a position that is not nearly matched by production value and storywriting. While it continues to grow in size and stature – clear evidence of the increased funding available to filmmakers – the industry, much like the country it exists in, is known to frequently struggle with the basics.
Another complaint many have with the industry, and one that is relatively new, borders on authenticity. The Wedding Party depicted an Owambe wedding reception in all its glory, complete with choreographed dancers, uninvited guests, and squabbles over serving arrangements, with the celebration of the newest entrants into holy matrimony clearly taking a back seat to the filling up of bellies. Chief Daddy released two years later had characters fight over classic Nigerian issues bordering inheritance and legitimate/illegitimate children.
Omo Ghetto: The Saga is Nigeria’s current highest grossing movie (the earlier mentioned movies also place in the top four) that is a decade late sequel to the original Omo Ghetto. The movie was a lighthearted take on gang crime in a Lagos slum, as its major character, Lefty was a member of an all female group that clashed with rival gangs, the police and a strict parent over the course of its two and a half hour runtime. While all of these movies spoke of Nigerian experiences that would be more than relatable to the average person, they do not represent a maximal use of our unique culture, and it is not a stretch to assume that, with some small tweaks, they could well have been produced by some other country.
This year, as if as part of some great directorial plan, we have made a decision to look inwards in search of thematic material. Nigerian filmmakers, recognising the asset our culture and history can be to our movies, have made 2022 the year to remember for ethnic language historical movies. For understandable reasons, this year also generated the most controversy with regards to the Nigerian Oscar Selection Committee’s decision in deeming no Nigerian movie worthy of nomination, a stand it took after initially shortlisting these three for that purpose. But while the mess surrounding this decision and the timeline leading up to it is most wisely left undiscussed, at least in this article, it is worth noting for how the outcry to this decision is a testament to the public perception of these movies.
The first to arrive was King Of Thieves. Released in cinemas in April, King of Thieves tells the story of Agesinkole, the titular character who becomes a sudden and immediately terrifying presence in the otherwise lawful town of Ajeromi. In a time and place when thieves were subject to the most hard-handed of punishments, immediate death by a serpent’s bite, this particular thief lived up to his kingly title, eluding death and capture, even as a barrage of witches, wizards and other mythical beings fall at his power.
This movie, the first brainchild of a partnership between Femi Adebayo’s Euphoria 360 and the more popular Anthill studios of Niyi Akinmolayon, was a display of the mythical as well as historical aspects of Yoruba culture, as characters waged spiritual war, for good and evil. A movie of this kind will need a visual department talented and financially backed enough to execute these fearsome battles to perfection, but that is where King Of Thieves struggles the most. This particular complaint points to a small budget more than anything else, and can easily be overlooked when the fundamentals are done right, and they are. In its primary premise and storyline, as well as in casting and characterisation, King Of Thieves shines brightest.
Words can hardly convey the joy to see Femi Adebayo and Odunlade Adekola, talented veterans of the niche Yoruba film industry, now making big appearances at the highest levels of Nollywood, and with all of their TV charismas in tow. Adekola and Adebayo do not get much screen time together as their feuding roles place them at polar opposites in the story, but each does a splendid job with his role, however different they are. The former is the troubled and compassionate King, the latter, the fierce and merciless source of his nightmares. They are joined by other familiar faces from the Yoruba film industry like Toyin Abraham and Ibrahim Chattah in, who put in great shifts in major supporting roles. If this partnership between those studios continues (and do we hope it does!), we could have on our hands a steady supply of Yoruba mythical classics ready for the big screen.
Anikulapo also drew from mythical Yoruba folklore and had, in addition, a superior budget, so it was apparent from the get-go that it would excel at the issues King Of Thieves had struggled with. Kunle Afolayan spared no expense in bringing his vision to life. If the realistic depiction of the mythical Akala bird, the sweeping shots of forests and rivers in nature, and even beautifully crafted figurines do not impress you, then consider this: to make this happen, Kunle Afolayan created an entire film village to be his scenery for this movie, and every penny spent towards this is repaid in its cinematography.
Anikulapo, however, disappointed in the areas that wouldn’t have cost anything to execute, like its story that faltered in pacing and transitions, a result of which was the movie’s true subject, the power to raise from the dead, the Anikulapo, failing to begin until the film was already halfway past its runtime. Kunle Afolayan too, failed to give his characters proper reasons to make decisions other than lust, so too many important turns in the story would be for purely sexual motives.
In its casting, Anikulapo shows itself to be a mainstream Nollywood movie delivered in Yoruba language, and not a Yoruba film pushed to mainstream levels like the above. Kunle Remi and Bimbo Ademoye are perfectly adequate in their roles opposite each other, even if not breathtakingly good, and other actors like Sola Sobowale and Taiwo Hassan put in competent shifts, but the story never strays too far from the leading couple. For all its sexual material, however, Anikulapo’s messages on greed and human ambition, and its commentary on what men do when placed in position of absolute power, are extra points to be awarded to a movie that is already so visually appealing.
When it comes to message and social commentary, however, nothing released this year comes close to the late Biyi Bandele’s Elesin Oba. An adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s Death And The King’s Horseman, this combination of talents proves simply too potent in storytelling. This movie is set in 1943, or about two centuries after King of Thieves and Anikulapo, and this time, with colonialism in place we get to see the interfering effects of colonial officers on the ancient traditional system. The Elesin Oba, the king’s horseman, one month after his master’s death is ready to commit ritual suicide to guide his soul through the afterlife. There are grave consequences to follow if this does not happen, but Elesin is not motivated by these. This is his duty, nay, honour, and nothing would give him greater pleasure than to be finally reunited with his liege in heaven, to rule once more for a tenure beyond the intervening hands of death. Or at least, nothing should. His resolve will be wrestled with by the desires of his own loins, and later, by the white man who aims to put this “barbaric” custom to an end.
Elesin Oba is a movie best enjoyed for its dialogue. Filmgoers who went expecting, for some reason, an action packed drama will label it boring, but its real power is in Soyinka’s writing, which Bandele brings to life with about all the authenticity available from the big screen. It falters slightly in having to keep some of its dialogue short for sake of time, dialogue that would have better explained the takeaway question of whether Elesin failing is solely due to the White Man’s interference, or whether Elesin himself could not find the strength to sever earthly tethers when the hour came.
Elesin Oba‘s connection to Yoruba culture and mythology, even if tainted by the White Man’s influence, is not severed. Its arrival to Netflix caps an incredible year for Yoruba historical movies, and for cinephiles eager to see Nigerian mythos given the same attention as say, Greek and Egyptian mythology, 2022 has taken Nigerian cinema a step close to this achievement. In the coming year, other Nigerian producers, especially of non-Yoruba ethnicity, will need to step up their games, and put in the research and effort needed to create more films of this stature. Like the country it exists in, Nollywood’s greatest asset is the near-infinite pool of culture it can draw from, and if this trio of movies arose from the mythology of only one of our 350+ tribes, one can scarcely envision the massive force we could be when the rest of the country picks up the pace.