Genevieve Nnaji’s ‘Lionheart’: Changing Nollywood’s Stereotypical Shortcomings
Genevieve Nnaji’s directorial debut movie Lionheart was released worldwide on January 4th, 2019, and since then, there have been mixed to positive reviews about both its cinematic and cinematographic relevance. While the international sphere has praised the movie albeit devoid of critical, in-depth analyses of plot and central themes, those within the continent have either strongly warmed up to Lionheart or briskly waved it off. Their reasons could be justified.
On Nollywood’s way to churning out high-volume productions blatantly critical of sociocultural and ethnic ideologies, bastardising Afrocentric notions from spirituality to family values to cultural affinities, all on ridiculous low-budget works lacking societal relevance, it became the world’s second biggest movie industry—ahead of India’s Bollywood and only behind the United States’ Hollywood. Not by merit or quality of work but by sheer quantity produced. And in that high volume, stereotypes were formed and continuously reinforced: the Igbo businessman never got wealthy without an illicit act—“money rituals;” the rich man’s daughter must fall in love with the pauper in the village marked by sharp socioeconomic contrasts; the inter-ethnic marriages between the Igbo and the Yoruba or between the Efik and the Hausa must be vetoed by the ethnocentric bigotry of their parents; the Northerner must be poor and uneducated or, if rich, must be an uber wealthy “Alhaji” with shady business dealings.
Thus, the list went on varying sprays of mediocrity and ridiculousness. Even the religious aspect wasn’t spared. In an exclusive interview with London-based media & entertainment consultant and disk jockey, DJ Abass in January, Nollywood film director and actor, Kunle Afolayan would admit that “Nollywood has played a role in the demonisation of African traditional religions.” Perhaps, this prior background knowledge formed the subjective opinion about Lionheart than what it tried to depict, terming it “bland,” “simplistic,” “normal” and likes. In shifting public perceptions and changing decades-long sociocultural stereotypical ideologies, I posit that some works of art can be subtly, mildly intense and still deliver. Lionheart is not a suspense-filled movie that drags you to the edge of your seat. Well, because it doesn’t necessarily have to. As I have argued in previous pieces, for any work of art to resonate—especially a visual work of art—it must go beyond cinematic appeal to connect with humans across all sociocultural spectrums. Any work of art which fails at making us see ourselves not just in the characters on screen but in the central themes espoused has characteristically failed its intended mission.
So, it was a breath of fresh air when Lionheart checked in to correct these anomalies. Unfortunately, critics downplay the merits of Lionheart because they are yet to critically analyse the subtle yet forceful achievements of eradicating ages-long, false, dim-witted stereotypes typical of Nollywood especially those of Eastern settings. For the first time, for instance, Chief Igwe Pascal (Kanayo O. Kanayo)—notoriously famed for such fetish tendencies in Nollywood movies—didn’t resort to diabolically attacking his business rival Chief Ernest Obiagu (Pete Edochie) especially with economic gains at stake by going to a dibia who would have demanded amongst many other things, the much-vaunted human sacrifice with wrinkles of failure instigating retribution, thereby reinforcing a negative ideology about African spirituality; neither did he acquire his wealth via illicit methods. Chief Godswill Obiagu (Nkem Owoh) as an uncle and the younger brother to the temporarily indisposed CEO Chief Obiagu didn’t try to take over the company, thus changing the ages-long stereotypical storyline of Nollywood movies about relatives and ulterior motives in corporate dealings. Even the illness of Chief Ernest Obiagu didn’t get portrayed as some mysterious works of ‘his enemies’ preferably those in the ‘village.’ Obiora (Phyno) didn’t get victimised as the first son for choosing to professionally be a musical artiste. With the emblematic “ị na-aka atọ” which Chief Obiagu greeted his son, Obiora (Phyno), it would show acceptance and legitimacy of his place in the family. Traditionally, the handshake known in Igbo language as “ekele echichi Igbo”—a unique greeting pattern for traditionally titled Igbo men—would mean even more, depicting the son as finally coming of age; of responsibility; and of ultimate emergence.
The larger context would be treated still.
When Adaeze and her uncle Chief Godswill approached Chief Ernest Obiagu for a potential merger with the Northern-owned Maikano Motors which would, undoubtedly, save Lionheart Motor Company Ltd while establishing a viable market model for both Northern and Eastern regions and a realistic avenue to expand their serviceability, and Chief Obiagu said “Ndi Hausa!” (Hausa people)—a loose phrase connoting the perceived pattern of distrust which exists between the Nigerian Easterners and Northerners—I felt all my years of growing up in Eastern Nigeria hit me hard. I felt the underlying pattern of stereotype which has plagued Nigeria and thus, conditioned her much-vaunted tribal failures engineered by ethnocentric biases since her amalgamation of the Southern and Northern protectorate in 1914. I felt the reason why both sides have remained almost mortal enemies. All of these, no doubt, exacerbated by much-documented historical ethnoreligious crises involving both regions.
The eventual merging with Alhaji Danladi Maikano’s Motor Company which saved Lionheart Motor Company Ltd budding background romantic relationship between Adaeze and Hamza resonates even deeper. It lays down important markers for, perhaps, the best way to deal with the complexities of Africa’s multicultural and ethnic identities. In bridging the ethnocentric divide, it answers, perhaps, the most pertinent question plaguing Africa about how the continent can effectively function in achieving economic, social and religious emancipation.
Critically though, Lionheart turns out to be more than a breath of fresh air from the over-flogged almajiri, beggar, illiterate gatemen stereotypical narratives in Nollywood movies. There is the Northern show of wealth, intellectual forthrightness, and entrepreneurial audacity.
Lionheart’s most intriguing theme is fighting societal perceptions based primarily on gender stereotype and long overemphasized by Nollywood. Samuel Akah (Kalu Ikeagu) acting as the company’s Director of Engineering & Services and embodying the ideology of patriarchy tries everything within his human powers to sabotage the emergence of Adaeze, the Director of Operations and Logistics—a symbol of gender equality; an erosion of the ages-long notion of the woman belonging “to the kitchen,’ and ultimately, the hope for defeating patriarchy. In Lionheart, Adaeze—the only daughter (a symbolic position in the Eastern Nigerian’s family) is celebrated and entrusted with running a multi-billion Naira company and would thrive especially one usually in a male-dominated industry.
“The biggest legacy I will leave for posterity is you—my daughter…you are the pendulum of my life. If you stop swinging, then, I’m gone,” Chief Ernest Obiagu would tell his daughter, Adaeze. “I am proud of you.”
Transportation serves as the underlying theme in Lionheart. Its relevance in Nigeria and throughout other African nations weighs heavily on the heart. While it has shown the political failures of our governments, it reiterates the need for immediate infrastructural revamp. This is because, the transportation menace—and the exhibited thuggery as seen from the opening scenes in Lionheart—show the everyday experiences of disadvantaged African citizens plying through deathtraps, loosely called roads, while being exposed to the unchecked madness of “loaders,” “drivers,” “conductors,” “ticket sellers,” the “patched and unpatched potholes” etc. This is also reminiscent of experiences lived in Aba, Itam, Waterlines, Lagos, Nsụka and other places.
Aesthetically, Lionheart connects to tell a story of family, perseverance, feminism, and tribal relations. With an extravagant use of the Igbo language, as Igbo language historian, author and linguist Maazi Ogbonnaya would explain to me, within dialectical variances—Igbo Izugbe, Enugu, Nsụka, Owere/Mbaise, Ọnịcha/Ọmambala dialects, typical Igbo parlance of street slangs reminiscent of places like Aba, Onicha, Owere,—Lionheart effortlessly makes us regard it as a piece of work true to Afrocentric notions within the ambience of one of Nigeria’s most spoken ethnic languages. Contextually, the Igbo language is spoken by more than 20 million people in Nigeria alone!
Humour—richly supplied, especially, by Chief Godswill Obiagu through the entirety of Lionheart—isn’t lost; neither are the proverbs known to the Igbo cultural identity as a core factor in buttressing transient knowledge and espousing ancient wisdom from generation to generation. As the eternal essayist, novelist and poet Chinua Achebe would note in his classic Things Fall Apart “among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.”
Cinematographically, Lionheart attains near-perfection as well. The amazing photographic shots by the Director of Photography, Yinka Edward embraced a gonzo-styled format in depicting the geographical locations, just as stellar performances from Pete Edochie, Genevieve Nnaji, Onyeka Onwenu, Kalu Ikeagwu, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Nkem Owoh move Lionheart at a steady, non-boring pace. Jemima Osunde, Chibuzo Abubuike popularly known as Phyno and others, make Lionheart heartwarming. With soundtracks featuring such legendary artistes and contemporary ones in oriental genres of music, afro hip-hop, a blend of the Oghene, Chief Stephen Osadebe’s Onuigbo, Flavour’s performance of Igbo Amaka and Ije Uwa, Olamide’s Bobo and others, the Afrocentric depiction of cultural attires owing much to the Costume Designer (Ngozi Anele Ijeoma (Zed-Eye) and above all, the directorial prowess of Genevieve Nnaji were all impressive.
In the international scene, Lionheart has followed its wide acceptance in Nigeria—and Africa—with success too. Shortly before it would screen at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2018 after being officially selected, it was reportedly acquired for worldwide distribution by American streaming giant, Netflix in September 2018 for $3.8 million making it Netflix’s first original film produced in Nigeria. Since then, it has screened in many prestigious places including at the Bonhams African Art, London and won the 2019 Black Reel Awards in the Outstanding Foreign Language/World Cinema Motion Picture category.
Yet, a critique of any work of art is never complete without pointing out any perceived tangling in smoothness. With the Maikano family—of Northern Nigeria—there was the feeling that more of the Hausa language could have been expressively used. It should have featured at least in additional scenes between Alhaji Danladi Maikano and his son, Hamza or between Hamza and his budding romantic moves for Adaeze more than it did in the penultimate scene where Chief Obiagu showed such polyglottic nerve with his Hausa. I think that was a major downside to an otherwise magnificent work.
More than anything though, for shattering long-held stereotypes in Nollywood’s incessant projections while aiming to reshape the Nigerian—and African—perceptions of culture, family, career choices, gender roles, ethnic relations and others, Lionheart deserves all the accolades. “This is how we change the narrative. Together. Let us continue to bridge the gap,” Lionheart’s Executive Producer—alongside Chinny Onwugbenu—cum Director, Genevieve Nnaji MFR would remarkably note.
With such an intriguing take on complicated subjects aimed at telling our story in an inspiring, mentally emancipating way, Lionheart is my early runner for nomination to clinch major awards at the 2019 Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) and to become the first ever Nigerian movie to be nominated for the Academy Awards. And just like Adaeze would tell her budding heartthrob Hamza Maikano, “Fingers crossed!”
Eleanya, Ndukwe Jr. is a graduate student of Political Science at California State University, Los Angeles concentrating on Global Politics with interests in International Relations. He also finds interest in Sports and the Creative Arts. He writes from Los Angeles, California. To engage me on Facebook, follow @Eleanya Ndukwe Jr.