Why Mo Abudu’s ‘Fifty’ is important
There are many who believe that Nigeria’s problems lie centrally in the lack of boreholes, the lack of street lights, the collapse of infrastructure, the absence (still) of basic amenities that make life, at the least, bearable.
And maybe they are right.
But then even they must remember that there was a time when we had all of these things: extensive rail networks now overrun by weeds, an organized system of bus stops now blocked by hawkers, water pipes that now run dry, urban planning supported by laws and regulation.
Somewhere along the way, we began to lose our grips on these tangibles, in a way that neither Operations Feed The Nation nor Structural Adjustment Programmes appears to solve.
It wasn’t the lack of plans and frameworks. It wasn’t that we didn’t understand anymore how to build roads, or how to lay pipes. It appears, along the line, we lost our hearts and our souls: what some people have chosen to call ‘the social fabric’ of our national lives.
That brings us to the clichéd debate about the importance of the social sciences. That debate will not end, facts regardless. So maybe it is easier to remind people that no advanced societies presently exist that are not driven, in no small measure, by what we call the ‘social sciences’ – an advanced understanding of the arts, of faith… of culture.
I was thinking all of these thoughts in the unlikeliest of places: as I sat in the cinema at Genesis Deluxe, for a media screening of the Nigerian movie everyone is talking about: Fifty.
On the face of it, Fifty is a pretty simple story: four connected middle-aged women with rather base issues. Aunty A is sleeping with Aunty B’s husband. Uncle B is wasting Aunty C’s money on gambling. Aunty D wants to get a boob job, in between sleeping with her daughter’z boyfriend and any random Unilag hottie that crossed her eyes. Aunty B’s younger brother has no future ambition.
Pretty flimsy, if you are the kind of person that dismisses stories based on the immediate images you see. But something more significant was happening, in between the almost infinite loop of breath-taking images from the Lekki-Ikoyi link bridge. In Fifty, we were seeing images of contemporary Nigeria, life as we know it, that are not presently available across our 100-movies-a-day film making industry.
There is a reason Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah resonates so heavily with many Nigerians in a way parallel to Half of a Yellow Sun. The latter (in film, a comparison would be Kunle Afolayan’s gorgeous October 1) spoke to a reality from our past, one that she forced us to engage in; thoughtfully, viscerally. The former however was more familiar, because we know the story. She weaved together an incredible contemporary narrative of the Nigerian elite existence, both at home, and in the Nigerian ‘satellite campuses’ of the United Kingdom and America.
This is something that the aforementioned Americans and Britons, gifted with everything from To Kill A MockingBird to random romcoms like The Other Woman, are used to seeing. Themselves. They see themselves daily. On large or small screens, reflected, dissected, instructed – correctly, adequately, with soul.
This is commonplace for them, and for many parts of Europe, and for South Africa, and for Israel, India, even Russia. But not here.
Which is why, for Nigeria, a romcom becomes a 2015 significant cultural mislestone: because, frankly, it’s an oasis in the desert. What passes for romantic comedies in NIgeria are screaming vixens with false accents struggling to outdo the other’s impossible expressions. With very little recognizable acting going on.
50 takes the bar and re-sets it.
Oh, there are flaws. For one, the director Biyi Bandele must take response ility for what now appears to be an uncanny ability to take big themes and make them smaller than they should be (Exhibits A and B: Yellow Sun, Fifty). The movie must accept that Lagos extends far and wide beyond Lekki, as does Lagos’s middle class, much of whom can be found in Ikeja’s GRA, parts of Surulere, Gbagada, even Magodo. And the res0lutions of much of the conflict, from Egbuson’s incest to Doyle’s friendship with Oboli lso leave plenty to be desired, reducing big-screen story telling to small-screen melodrama.
But those do not detract from the importance of Fifty as a Nigerian cultural event.
Perhaps in this I will count myself biased because I am altogether impressed by not just Fifty, but what EbonyLife TV has come to represent.
There was a time that I complained that EbonyLife TV does not represent my reality. It doesn’t speak to me about my life growing up in Ijeshatedo, going to school in Ikenne, buying ‘risky burger’ in Unilag, undergoing ‘weekend deliverance’ in MFM.
But then I realized that its mission is as different as it is stubborn. It chooses to reflect an aspirational reality, a slice of Nigeria’s middle and upper classes that we have to admit, previous media platforms have captured either not at all, or very poorly.
That is certainly not my reality, but it’s a valid reality that I recognize and that exists as an authentic Nigerian narrative.
In Fifty, I could recognize almost every single character. I could recognise the easy dignity in Omoni Oboli’s housekeeper (played with elegance by Lala Akindoju) despite her social status, and the easy camaraderie between boss and maid. I could recognize the ‘uncle agbaya’ who refuses to take a job because he is waiting for everyday for government contracts and is yet to leave University in his head. I could recognize the urgently reasonable pastor who refuses to allow a deluded Ikpe-Etim get away with delinquent dependence on ‘God’ – an important film moment when you consider that Nollywood, and Nigerian films generally (even those with ‘high’ quality) have insisted on a caricature of the Nigerian pastor as a screaming, foolish, corpulent parasite who preaches prosperity, collects your money by crook, and leaves your life with no value.
I fell in love with characters so much I wanted to interrogate these characters further. I wanted to find out how Ikubuese became like all these undergraduate boys I hear about who ‘service’ Sugar mummies for a living, I wanted to understand how girls like Osimkpa who I see routinely in hitherto male domin ated jobs evolve, I want to understand how the pastor reconciles spiritual imperatives with all too prosaic physical realities. I loved my Lagos, with its gorgeous waters and imposing bridges, and everything from the Afrika Shrine to Freedom Square in between – a cultural destination for the world.
Underneath these surface stories, therefore, lay complex social realities – the lack of a healthcare system that middle-class event planners should depend upon, a culturally demanded silence that allows fathers abuse their daughters without consequence, the flourishing of the creative economy and its options for a new generation.
When many Nigerians have tried to tell these stories, they have turned them into art-house experiments so stylized that they cannot connect with street sensibilities. These film-school movies, fetishise our experiences and make them out of our reach by exaggeration.
You get a sense that the person who wrote the script, who filmed the movie, who commissioned the project, doesn’t really understand the reality of which she or he speaks. And so cannot connect on a large scale with the audiences.
With Fifty, that is decidedly not the case. There is nothing exaggerated about the characters, nothing unreal about the locations, nothing disconnected about the trajectories, everything is real, believable, touchable, feelable… authentic.
You know instinctively that these people know what they are talking about. They understand these streets, they get our language, they feel our pain, they are truly telling a story that they understand, that we understand, that we can own.
Of course, Abudu is not doing something that hasn’t been done before. Storytellers like Amaka Igwe, Zik Zulu Okafor, a revolving door of Amatas, Ola Balogun, and, of course, the unmatchable Tade Ogidan already began this tradition many years ago – of stories that reflect our true realities.
Unfortunately, a collision of distribution, financing, and perhaps talent frustrations truncated growth and ambition. The result has been ‘New Nollywood’, a mishmash of badly told stories, directed and produced by actors and actresses who haven’t done a good enough job mastering their craft; hosting celebratory movie theatre premieres that only push away the audiences, because the audiences understand that great stories are not told only by great cameras and fine sound-grading.
Great stories are told by great storytellers, who understand all the elements necessary to weave a darn good tale.
Which is the genius of Fifty? Incredible photography, music brilliantly weaved together, costume intelligently designed, and an exquisite array of locations found worthy companions in some of Nigeria’s finest acting talent, a script worth its weight in gold, one that looks like it could soon find other lives on television, in other incarnations.
Again, colour me biased based on my admiration of and connection with Mo Abudu, but the quality and the scale of her ambition, and the almost religious fervor to ‘tell African stories that haven’t been told before’, or to ‘see African women like you haven’t seen them before’, seen in Fifty, is a challenge to all of our storytellers.
Our reality requires reflection, position, context.
We need cultural champions who understand the imperatives of telling these important narratives, not to the outside world, but to Nigerians, and to Africans, so that we can interrogate our own existence, engage its complexities, struggle with its consequences, and feel through our imperatives.
That’s what Fifty does. That’s what all films worth their salt do. That’s what EbonyLife TV, and now EbonyLife Films appears to represent, whether it realizes it or not. It is carrying an age old burden – filling a crucial gap.
But of course, what Nigeria needs is not just what Mo has started (a network of well told, commercially successful stories). It needs to go beyond that. Nigeria needs more people doing exactly what she is doing. More people raising the bar, raising the correct bars.
We need to advance our cultural industries to the point where like (ugh) Hollywood, we have hundreds of major films every year, all fighting to be box office hits. Audiences love this, cinemas love this, critics love this.
Flashes of brilliance will not do. It is not enough to have Kunle Afolayan. We need this constant, consistent, concerted; so that audiences are forced to pay attention and to stay connected. That’s how these industries are built. Through this convergence of great stories, structured business plans and consistent connections with audiences.
One hopes therefore that those who truly have a stake in creating this cultural powerhouse are paying attention, to understand why Fifty (and the body of work it signposts) is important for everyone.
If Abudu succeeds in telling a revolving door of commercially-successful, critically-acclaimed stories that are truthful to aspects of the Nigerian reality – and therefore, she must – it will be a signpost to an entire generation of timid story letters and the money bags that need to underwrite those stories; that the audience is ready, that the market is ready, that Nigeria is ready.
And, by God, we are.
We just haven’t seen too many stories worth our passion.
• Jideonwo is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared on CNN and the BBC. He is managing partner and co-founder of RED.