Funke Akindele’s latest series plays on the story of She, the iconic novel by H. Rider Haggard that portrayed Ayesha as She Who Must Be Obeyed, the narcissistic, strong-willed queen who reigned in supreme authority over her subjects in the ancient African kingdom of Kör. This series is named “She Must Be Obeyed”—a subtle difference in naming that only barely conveys the wide gap in storytelling and writing.
This story follows Siyanbola AKA She, a very successful Nigerian artist who is overcome with an obsession to not only be superior to the competition but to bring them down in every way possible. Her methods range in vileness from calling up show producers and cancelling their shows to creating multiple troll accounts to hate on them on social media, while she maintains a facade of support to their faces.
Her major rivals react to her actions in different ways; Tito (Veeiye) the singer does not see the maliciousness behind She’s fake support, but X-Cite (Waje) does not share this naiveté, so she is more willing to pay her back in her own coin.
Asides the music industry, the story also spends a significant amount of time following the characters in She’s personal and professional lives, including Victoria (Nancy Isime), her P.A.; Sisqo (Akah Nnani), her manager; Bayo (Lateef Adedimeji), her cousin; Etim (Umoh Bishop Ime), her cook and Ruka (Lizzy Jay), her housekeeper. It is in the way she treats these workers that She mirrors the actions of her influencing character.
The rest of the series’ major action is completed by Adaeze (Rachel Okonkwo), the talented vocalist who is actually the voice behind She, and the problems she experiences trying to send her brother to university while battling a drunk, gambling mother (Patience Ozokwor), a wayward brother (Mike Ezuruonye) and a stingy uncle (Chiwetalu Agu).
If this looks like a lot to address in a five-part series, it’s because it is. She Must Be Obeyed has many flaws, but the most glaring of these is that it cannot decide what it wants to be. Handling so many storylines concurrently comes at a detriment to the primary plot of She and the music industry, and even this story could have been better served by a greater depth of realism.
Funke Akindele perhaps lacks the budget she needs to sell the story of superstardom, and it shows. For instance, after She, or either of her rivals, releases a new song, a few scenes are inserted to show random people discussing the new event in various places. It is effective in portraying the world around these stars and their impact on it, but it fails to add that extra layer of texture to She’s fictional world.
Comedy is another aspect that “She Must Be Obeyed” visibly tries to achieve but spectacularly fails at. Scenes with domestic staff Etim and Ruka exchanging gossip and insults in turn in the kitchens, the constant back-and-forth between Bayo and Sisqo over their roles in She’s life, as well as the family squabbles between Adaeze and her family, were all written to be humorous, but they will be more accurately described as cringe instead.
And as a lot of screentime is spent with these minor characters, watching them consistently fail to elicit the laughs they were created for subtracts heavily from the overall experience.
“She Must Be Obeyed” does its best to build up She as the archetypal villain, even though some of her actions can be over-the-top. She insists on her junior colleagues not speaking in smart accents or wearing glamorous clothing so as not to distract from her own shine, she manipulates Adaeze into signing a music recording contract that would put any real-life slave contract to shame, and she insists on not paying salaries even while she flaunts brand new cars.
Shaffy Bello makes an appearance as She’s mother in one episode—simply to show how even family is not spared in her maltreatment of everyone else, but by building up this aspect of She’s life and not returning to it, the writers waste what could have been a crucial way to understand She’s negativity and not just portray it. In the absence of any depth to her character she becomes a fairytale villain—fitting into the series’ title, but not reality.
This layering of one vice after another to She’s character sets her up for an inevitable downfall, where, you would expect, every mask of pretence will be discarded and her true self revealed to her fans for who she is. This is, however, not well handled by the writers, requiring too many unrealistic coincidences to make it happen, but these latter scenes where the other characters work with a purpose represent a clear improvement over the earlier episodes without much focus.
It is in these later episodes that the support cast shine—mostly Nancy Isime, Rachael Okonkwo and Lateef Adedimeji—while Funke Akinlade herself takes a backseat.
Acting performances, as always, are constrained by the scripts each actor is given, but there are still a few who excel beyond these limitations. Like Akah Nnani who drops a seamlessly woven performance as Sisqo and Waje’s portrayal of X-Cite as the only other star in the industry that can match She’s vim.
Veeiye, too, makes one of her first appearances in Nollywood, but it is not at a similar standard. These stars are also responsible for the film’s score, which is based on original compositions written by JJC Skillz and delivered by Waje, Vee and Brenda Adigwe (who sings for She).
Funke Akindele’s take on the music industry is certainly novel, and a welcome diversion from the more common Nollywood staples, but she has not executed it with enough effort to gain sympathy for this new direction. The series improves in its later episodes, probably because it gives up on trying to be a sitcom and focuses on She and her eventual downfall, but it would take a particularly strong Nollywood fan to even persist until that point.