So far, Nollywood has entertained us and the rest of the world with simple stories almost resembling a parody of Nigerian lives. But it is time to grow up. It is time to adopt and create the finest film technology to tell African stories with mindfulness, intelligence, creativity and panache. All African-descended people are watching and the whole world is waiting. It is a responsibility to be taken seriously.
My first encounter with cinema was during my undergraduate years at the then University of Ife, now named after Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the visionary and sage who founded it. Ife imbued us with rigorous academic thinking and a sense of responsibility to use our education to better the world. It also provided abundant opportunities for students to pursue their extra-curricular interests by supporting student-led social and cultural organisations on campus. For me, personally, all roads led to Oduduwa Hall, the home of theatre and films. It was there that I encountered British and American societies for the first time through images, colour, sound, and great story-telling. The power of moving images, good acting and excellent technical production cannot be underestimated, especially on someone like me, who was experiencing this medium for the first time. Even an ordinary plate of bananas shot from the right angles and manipulated by good film technicians becomes an object of desire and longing.
During our high school years, we had already been fed a staple of British classics from William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, George Orwell and Jane Austen. Who can ever forget the chant of “Four legs good, two legs bad” in Animal Farm, with the duplicitous pigs and Boxer, the dumb work horse? We recited Mark Anthony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral with flourish to show off to our classmates, and we discovered malapropism from Mrs. Malaprop in The Rival by Richard Sheridan. For recreational reading, we consumed the romantic Mills and Boons series, and the writings of Barbara Cartland and Denise Robins. The American James Hadley Chase gangster novels circulated feverishly and widely among the youth of my generation. I was a devoted reader of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and all the mystery writing I could lay my hands on. Nancy Drew, the teenage American sleuth was an idol. None of this thoroughly-ingested and entertaining fiction had the impact that movies had on me later. The power of the written word cannot really compete with the power of moving images. In those days, I was a disciple of Marxism and one of my fellow comrades, alarmed at my fervent devotion to this form of entertainment, warned me about capitalist seduction, but I disagreed with him, arguing vehemently that it was just entertainment. He was far ahead in his political consciousness because he turned out to be right. We were all in our late teenage years, trying to figure out the world and change it.
Alliance of Progressive Students (ALPS), a Marxist organisation on campus, was where we found an ideology that matched our ideals. My comrade was right about my uncritical consumption of Western films. It was not just entertainment, it was the self-representation of a people in the best light. It was the use of soft power, not only to flatter and persuade the people whose stories were being told on how they should see themselves, but also how they want other people in the world to see them. Soft power is more potent than military power because once you have the attention and mind of a people, you are able to influence their worldview a great deal, even when that perspective is injurious to well-being and self-interest.
The British and American films I saw at Oduduwa Hall were vivid technicolor expressions of the mythologies, food habits, architecture, family relationships, technologies, work habits, driving habits, sex habits, and social hierarchies of the societies in which they were produced. For curious and impressionable young minds, these films, though fictional, were seen almost as documentaries, how the world worked. They were seen as real and genuine representations of those societies. It would take me decades of growing up, traveling, and living with the people whose stories were being told to know that those were fictional accounts of their societies, that while some things were true, much was exaggerated, omitted, diminished, or outrightly distorted to fit the narrative. Even the story of slavery and the American Civil War, horrible and monumental events that shaped the United States, and which continue to define its social, political, cultural and economic lives to this day, was presented as a love story in Gone With the Wind.
The enslavement of Africans was so thoroughly normalised in this historic film that the discourse of slavery was totally absent in its aftermath. The first Oscar award for a black actor in the history of Hollywood was given in 1938 to Hattie McDaniel for her performance as the older, unattractive, overweight but devoted enslaved maid to the very attractive, rich, slim and spoiled white lead character, Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh. It took me years to process this film as a tale of slavery and not of the captivating romantic love between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, and to see the glorious and cultured paradise celebrated in the film as the brutal, unjust, slavery-dependent hell it really was.
Nollywood is a testament to the ingenuity, energy, and enterprise of Nigerians who basically built bricks without straw. The stories of the black world, if you look through the Western film medium, has been full of distortions, racism, and just pure ignorance because it reflects the attitude, habits, and beliefs of the story tellers. Nollywood is a roar back to these depictions…
Of course, the writer of this story was Margaret Mitchell, a daughter of the South, whose side lost the war over slavery, but who forever memorialised the lavish lifestyle enslaved Africans enabled slave owners in the antebellum South. Hollywood adapted her novel into a film and made it available to millions of viewers all over the world. This is an example of using the film medium to effectively promote a particular point of view, while concealing another. While a Civil War raged to liberate enslaved black people, Gone With The Wind depicted them as loving, faithful, and loyal to the families that enslaved them, indicating that these characters enjoyed being enslaved!
Living in the United States, especially in the ‘90s, it was difficult not to notice the lack of positive images of black people in Hollywood movies, if they appeared at all. African-American and African characters were fleeting and derided figures, reduced in their humanity, almost to the level of ghosts. They rarely had the rich multi-dimensional complex life of white characters, be they rich or poor, pretty or ugly, evil or good. To us new immigrants, the Africans we saw on film were unrecognisable. The Africa in the movies was like the one in their media, a place of wars, diseases and famine. You saw gun-totting African warlords in their green fatigues, speaking in the fake Hollywood African accent, and engaging in irrational violence. There was never any context or history to the violent stories Hollywood loved to tell about Africa. It was a land of exotic and pitiful people which attracted do-gooders who wanted to save Africa after seeing these awful images, and opportunists who visit to fulfil their material and psychological needs. Then entered Nollywood.
Nollywood, at the beginning, was like the Obama Presidency. Not many people took Barack Obama seriously when he first started his campaign in 2008 because they thought he was not a viable candidate, smart, erudite and compassionate as he is. He did not fit the mould because of his race. Then he made us pay attention. Nollywood, from its humble beginnings, followed this trajectory – an underdog home-grown film industry, with little capital, no input from government cultural institutions or from foreign donors, no foreign technical expertise, but which has grown into a powerful medium through which Nigerians are telling their stories, and known by people all around the world. People of African ancestry in particular hunger for Nollywood’s productions and eagerly spread the word about it. I first learnt about Nollywood in Cambridge, Massachusetts from a Haitian woman, then from academics and journalists who were beginning to take interest in the prolific indigenous film industry.
Nollywood is a testament to the ingenuity, energy, and enterprise of Nigerians who basically built bricks without straw. The stories of the black world, if you look through the Western film medium, has been full of distortions, racism, and just pure ignorance because it reflects the attitude, habits, and beliefs of the story tellers. Nollywood is a roar back to these depictions, even with its predilections to focus on simple and superstitious formulaic story lines. As Femi Odugbemi, Lagos-based film maker and executive director of iRep International Documentary Film Festival sees it, Nollywood is not only a pushback to the global information order which has misrepresented people of African descent for so long, it is an art form capable of projecting, protecting and transforming our culture. He thinks that while a lot of Nollywood films centre on juju and mansions, there is a lack of understanding in the complexity of our cosmology that recognises both good and evil. Traditional religion especially has been the whipping boy of Nollywood, with Christianity offered as a palliative. Odugbemi contends that there is colonial mentality and intellectual laziness plaguing some of the writers and producers of Nollywood films, that after two decades since Nollywood made its entrance into the film world, it is now mature enough to reflect on the kind of films being made. It should be more than entertainment.
Nollywood provides a mirror, a door, and a huge gate for us to celebrate our achievements, examine our foibles, and engage our imagination to reflect on what kind of society we want to be. So far, Nollywood with much less financial resources, is doing for us what the government of Nigeria is incapable of doing with the millions of naira budgeted for culture. It is harnessing the energy and imagination of Nigerians, creating economically productive enterprises, and elevating national culture and pride. Nigerian government projects an image of inefficiency, lack of vision and planning, cancerous and endemic corruption, as demonstrated recently by the report that lawmakers in Nigeria earn millions of naira in salaries and emolluments! The government continues to be an embarrassment to its citizens at home and in the diaspora, while Nollywood tells the stories of the dynamism and struggles of everyday people in Nigeria. Nollywood is the masquerade that dances well in the square. It makes us proud at home and in the diaspora.
Nollywood is in a powerful position to tell original African stories because these stories have never been told. Femi Odugbemi opined that Nollywood can project Africa in a deliberate way and that it should be ready to engage in difficult conversations the way South African films do. It has to propagate indigenous philosophies that reflect our African humanity and world view.
Nollywood is in a unique and powerful position to do many things for our society. For one, it can begin to articulate the values we need to create a national story, the values that the diverse peoples of the country can rally around. This is something the Nigerian government has not been able to do almost sixty years after independence. No one really understands what the Nigerian state stands for apart from the nonsensical mantra of unity and keeping Nigeria together. Unity for what, is then the question. What the national goals and values are, what rules should govern us are elusive as Nigeria lumbers on in its awkward, unstable, and very costly national experiment. It is like a marriage with no identifiable values and goals guiding it.
Writers, thinkers, scholars and artists of Nollywood could help us shape this important narrative, while celebrating, highlighting and transforming the rich and diverse Nigerian cultures. One of the great things about Nollywood is that every voice counts, majority or minority. It is delightful to see the vibrant participation of Nigerian minorities in this fledgling but very important industry, unlike Hollywood, which until recently, muted and distorted the voices and humanity of black minorities, thus helping to maintain the terrible racial status quo of American society.
Nollywood is in a powerful position to tell original African stories because these stories have never been told. Femi Odugbemi opined that Nollywood can project Africa in a deliberate way and that it should be ready to engage in difficult conversations the way South African films do. It has to propagate indigenous philosophies that reflect our African humanity and world view. To do this, Nigeria has to take education very seriously at the primary level. Some misguided government officials took History as a subject out of the curriculum. While history is always contested, it is important to teach History to young Nigerians and provide avenues for them to debate it. No matter how problematic our personal and family histories are, we would very much diminished if we don’t know anything about our parents and ancestors. We would be like anemic trees without roots. Femi thinks we need to transmit our values that prioritise human life and dignity above money. When a government official loots the funds meant for roads, hospitals, and schools, he or she is making a choice of money over the millions of human lives that would suffer because of this crime of looting.
Nigeria is a society in transition. So far, Nollywood has entertained us and the rest of the world with simple stories almost resembling a parody of Nigerian lives. But it is time to grow up. It is time to adopt and create the finest film technology to tell African stories with mindfulness, intelligence, creativity and panache. All African-descended people are watching and the whole world is waiting. It is a responsibility to be taken seriously. Nollywood must engage scholars, writers, thinkers and culture leaders of all ethnic nationalities to tell these important stories capable of transforming our lives and those of people of African descent. Government and the private sector need to support Nollywood in providing funds and establishing excellent film departments in our universities. Nollywood is an eagle waiting to soar, and it will, with a good wind beneath its wings.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Writer and Culture Advocate. Email: email@example.com