As Nigerians trooped to the streets in October to demand an end to police brutality, Nollywood was present. Online and off, actors and filmmakers made themselves useful in the most far-reaching display of people power recorded in Nigeria since the return to democracy in 1999. The demonstrations, known as #EndSARS, began after a viral video uncovered the gruesome murder of a young man by operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a notorious unit of the Nigerian police force. They ended tragically after members of the army were dispatched to the Lekki toll gate in Lagos to fire bullets at peaceful protesters.
Favorites from Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, were active and engaged. From lending their influential voices and drumming up international support, to attending protest venues physically and mobilizing relief materials and useful information. Actresses Kate Henshaw and Rita Dominic were photographed at the Lekki venue, fists clenched and raised in a show of solidarity. Hilda Dokubo made rallying videos that were widely circulated, and Genevieve Nnaji penned an open letter to President Muhammadu Buhari asking that he show some empathy to his electorate. Hint: He did not.
All of this conscious activity may have been surprising to many, but it shouldn’t be really. Nigerian arts have a long, documented history of political activism dating back to the heyday of Fela Kuti. But the film industry has been just as engaged, with filmmakers churning out material that actively engages with the socio-political issues of the time.
This activism has not been clearly defined of late even as—aka Nollywood—has recorded an upswing in international attention this past decade. In June 2020, streaming giant Netflix kicked off its “Made by Africans, watched by the world” media campaign that had Nollywood as one of the key anchors.
Nollywood’s appeal has long been based off the persuasion and power of representation. Following years of colonialism and dictatorship, Nigerians were searching for themselves on screens.
Films particularly fiction, remain complex industrial and social engagements. A product of their cultural and social environments, the modes of production, distribution, and exhibition go a long way in determining the content.
Chris Obi Rapu’s Living in Bondage exponentially expanded the audience base of the straight-to-video format in 1992. This same mass appeal has alas been the bane of Nollywood. The ultra-low budgets, limited technical capacity, relatable stories, and modest distribution structure that made Nollywood content readily accessible also made it hard for proper investment in films. Thus, Nollywood content is likely to end up on the disposable rather than definitive spectrum.
Even so, filmmakers have striven to reflect the country around them in modest ways. Living in Bondage, for all of its entertainment value, is a critique of the overt greed and fast wealth environment of the 1990s, a period highlighted by a spate of killings and trade in body parts. This wealth was often directed to finance political campaigns. Amaka Igwe’s Rattlesnake details the crippling lack of a social safety net for the underprivileged. Both films—updated recently for a new generation by actor turned director Ramsey Nouah—are proper examples, not just of Nigerian crime stories, but of filmmakers inspired by the communities around them.
These films tended to incorporate positive depictions of police officers as defenders of law. If there was blame to be shared, the bulk of it went to the corrupt system that made it next to impossible for the police to function effectively. Tunji Bamishigbin’s Set It Off rip-off, Most Wanted had hardworking officers pursuing a gang of wily female bank robbers.
With his films Hostages and Owo Blow, Tade Ogidan broke from this narrative, depicting overt abuse of the social contract through acts of police brutality. Hostages in particular features a thrilling chase sequence that has the police at the behest of a wealthy patron, deploy helicopters and fancy weaponry to hunt a private citizen whom he considers an enemy.
With the police force becoming increasingly redundant to the average Nigerians, Nollywood films like Issakaba reflected this self-sourced pivot towards vigilante groups and private outfits to meet the security needs of communities.
Ego Boyo produced 30 Days, the debut actioner by Mildred Okwo about a team of female vigilantes killing off corrupt politicians. 30 Days is packed with subtext that criticizes citizen apathy and calls for a bloody revolution. It was never released widely. Okwo would follow up with the tamer The Meeting, a hilarious send up of bureaucracy in government offices. At the Lagos premiere, the minister of petroleum amongst other political heavyweights was in attendance.
At the turn of the new century, following a spectacular decade run, Nollywood’s video heyday was on its last legs, helped along by uncontrolled piracy and technology. The industry pivoted to the theatres and a new generation of filmmakers were minted. With theatres came the pressure to put bums in seats and film executives began to adopt the impersonal, commercial approach to making films. All-star casts, romantic comedies and a certain glossy aesthetic that favored stories from upper class Lagos. Power players like AY Makun, Filmhouse, and Inkblot soon emerged.
These new power brokers didn’t just have the ears of the political elite who often supported their projects, they also played the media game and were able to attract local and international press for their projects.
The Goodluck Jonathan administration was particularly sympathetic to the arts and deployed resources to benefit the industry. At the same time, beloved Nollywood players began to test the political waters. Desmond Elliot was elected into the Lagos state parliament where he still holds a seat today. Tony “One Week” Muonagor held a similar elective position in Anambra state. Richard Mofe Damijo, Nkiru Sylvanus, and Femi Adebayo were all appointed into political positions. It is hard to quantify the impact of this trend beyond personal benefit, but it certainly helped keep the filmmaking elite and government on the same side. The unlikely result was a blunting of the industry’s edges.
Then there was the matter of the Nigerian Film and Videos Censors Board (NFVCB), a government agency that appointed itself the ultimate filter and moral arbiter of what Nigerians were allowed to consume. Films that strayed from the agency’s milquetoast vision of national identity were punished with a sledgehammer.
Fuelling Poverty, the 2012 AMAA winning documentary narrated by Wole Soyinka that detailed the events of the Occupy Nigeria mass movement, was banned from public exhibition. The director, Ishaya Bako would spend the next phase of his career making romantic comedies and kitchen sink dramas. He returned to political filmmaking last year with the NGO supported 4th Republic, a fine if toothless dramatic thriller.
The makers of Half of a Yellow Sun, the big screen adaptation of the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie classic tome found themselves in hot water when they had to delay the film’s national release after the board declined to approve the film for public consumption. The ban was as Adichie described it, a “a knee-jerk political response” to fears that the film would incite violence.
Issues around censorship and classification have been recurring. This year, the censors board demanded edits before classifying The Milkmaid, Nigeria’s second submission for the Oscars best international film category. The Milkmaid is an ambitious epic that deals with female resilience and the protracted Boko Haram crisis in the North East.
Sometimes, it isn’t enough to scale the censorship hurdle. In January this year, the board temporarily recalled the benign romantic comedy, Sugar Rush, at the time the top grossing film in the country. A sister government agency had objected to the film’s negative portrayal of its operations.
Major filmmakers have taken the lessons and decided to steer clear of potentially problematic themes. Portrayals of brutality is high on this list. The record-breaking run of EbonyLife Films’ The Wedding Party movies at the box office also helped solidify a new profitable direction for the film industry: weddings, parties, romance, and generous shots of the iconic Lekki-Ikoyi link bridge.
Regardless, filmmakers have taken advantage of the industry’s diversity to make political work both in the mainstream and on the fringes. Kemi Adetiba’s 2018 feminist gangster thriller King of Boys was a surprise blockbuster success. King of Boys focuses on political corruption at high levels, although the ganger element is dominant and laid bare a familiar society bereft of principles where absolute power corrupts absolutely. The male protagonist, a resolute law enforcement operative, faces a crippling crisis of conscience when he comes face to face with the duplicitous nature of power.
Participating in protests is one thing, creating art that reflects the movement is yet another. Historically, successive mass demonstrations have failed to translate to definitive representation in films. But #EndSARS feels like an awakening in itself. The peaceful protests started as a rejection of police brutality, but it was also a cultural ground shifting, with a new generation learning to assert their readiness to lead.
Director Kunle Afolayan has indicated his interest in making a film about the movement. While his interpretation is likely to be watered down Hollywood derived schmaltz, more exciting are the young voices who were on ground filming and living the experience in real time. The proliferation of streaming platforms as alternative paths of exhibition and distribution offers hope that filmmakers can create challenging art that isn’t afraid to point fingers without negotiating the burden of state censorship.