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Admit It, Female Characters In Nollywood Have Come A Long Way
From the quintessential bad girl to the wicked mother-in-law, the portrayal of women in Nollywood was pretty set. It is hardly the same today.
As soon as the characters began to stare at each other with intent, my mother gave me a sidelong glance. I refused to catch her eye, keeping my focus on the screen, willing the on-screen chemistry to dissolve. No-one wants to watch a scene, where two characters have sex, with their parents.
“Such a responsible girl. A really good girl,” my mother said of Ejura (Linda Ejiofor-Suleiman) who had spent the night with a potential older love interest. This was Mildred Okwo’s The Meeting (2012), one of the groundbreaking films of the last decade.
It was the first film I had watched with my mother in a long time — a part of me longed to show her something different from the usual story. When a girl meets a well-to-do man like Makinde, in Nollywood, the plan is to seduce and secure him. Before this, no other film had really struck me as one I could show my mother about how Nollywood’s portrayal of women was changing, without her falling asleep. This film was just the right amount of simple and funny, and perfect for us to watch together.
Nollywood films of the 90s and early 2000s followed a fixed format. They were pseudo-moral lessons where women were merely plot movers, rewarded for good conduct. A man was almost always the prize.
For me and my siblings, growing up in a sleepy town in Edo State, Nollywood films were an escape. The fact that they were moralistic, and reduced women to a few stereotypes only dawned on me as I got older.
The wicked mother-in-law role was still going strong well into the mid-2000s. In Upside Down (2006), Patience Ozokwor’s character taunts her on-screen son’s wife for not having a child, and devises a plan to get a grandchild by any means when she discovers it’s her son who is infertile. The disgraced barren wife and the scorned witch were also popular figures, the latter popularised by Karishika (1996) starring Becky Okorie as a witch sent to earth by Lucifer.
The Nollywood of the 1990s and 2000s was fiercely competitive. Around 50 films were shot weekly, and budgets were small. Sticking to a winning formula ensured filmmakers made a quick return. Although the industry maintains similar volume presently, the difference is that filmmakers now compete across different market levels. Then, it was just home videos. Now, there are cinema, streaming, home video and satellite television audiences to feed.
There was a shift towards the end of the 2000s. In 2009, Kunle Afolayan made Figurine which featured a woman as a central nuanced character – Mona (Omoni Oboli), who upon finding out that her husband and their friend stole a mystical sculpture from an abandoned shrine, has to figure out ways to protect her family even though she isn’t sure what from. Kemi Adesoye wrote the film and went on to write other screen projects that feature complex female characters including Fifty (2015), produced by Mo Abudu’s EbonyLife, that traces the changes four different women navigate as they reach 50.
In 2010, more markets opened up with Jason Njoku starting NollywoodLove, a YouTube channel for Nollywood films that became profitable in two months. It became IROKOtv in 2011. The same year Emem Isong launched Royal Arts Academy which encouraged more women to take filmmaking and acting classes. Upon a cursory look, eight out of ten of its most influential alumni are women who are currently influential in the film business.
Some veteran female actors, like Genevieve Nnaji, set up their own production companies. Actress Mary Remmy-Njoku founded Rok Studios in 2013 exposing the industry to a wider audience. The production and financing studio increased the hiring pool for Nigerian filmmakers. It also partnered with SKY, the largest PayTV operator in Europe, to launch ROK TV, a 24/7 Nollywood channel fully programmed, produced, and developed by ROK Studios. In 2019, it was acquired by French media giant, Canal+.
In 2018, Nnaji’s film LionHeart (2018) was acquired by Netflix and was the first Netflix original film produced in Nigeria. The story followed Adaeze who had to fight through cut-throat competition in the transportation business and rise above misogyny to succeed her father.
Like me, screenwriter Esther Oyiza Kokori grew up with Nollywood and saw it as her escape but was frustrated by the writing. “In these films, you see how women unable to have kids were treated and how women could not behave freely because society would judge them. Women were shown going to school so they could graduate and marry responsible, rich men..” Changing this narrative was one of the reasons she joined the industry.
Kokori cites Eniola Salami (Sola Sobowale) as one of the most important female characters created in recent times. Salami, in Kemi Adetiba’s King of Boys (2018), is a leader in the underworld and uses her influence to win elections for her preferred candidates in exchange for political favours. She is tough and unforgiving, characteristics of a ‘bad’ woman in old Nollywood; today, Eniola Salami is iconic.
The success of King of Boys is evidence of the huge appetite for different stories. It grossed 245 million Naira. The sequel is a Netflix original seven-part series released in 2021. Both projects are further proof that the fixed formula of the 90s and early 2000s where women were mere plot movers had almost-fully shed its weight.
Films by women — as lead producers and directors — have made over 4.8 billion Naira out of the total seven billion Naira gross the industry raked in from the cinemas from 2014 to 2021.
“Nigerian society is patriarchal in nature and this is reflected in the way women were portrayed in Nollywood films,” says filmmaker Blessing Uzzi. “But as knowledge of equality and feminism has grown here, and more women get into powerful positions in the industry, we have seen the stories evolve over time.”
Uzzi is one of the younger female filmmakers inspired by the work of pioneering women such as Jade Osiberu, who is behind some of the most important films in the last decade, including the blockbuster Sugar Rush (2019). Osiberu setup Tribe85 Productions in 2017 with the aim of taking African stories to a global audience, and last year she became the first African filmmaker to sign an overall deal with Amazon’s Prime Video.
Uzzi is working on her debut picture No Man’s Land that follows two brothers’ struggles to survive following a forced eviction of a waterside slum to make way for a government-backed luxury estate.
Starring Sobowale, who played the aforementioned Eniola Salami, as one of the residents. Her character is described as the life of the slum, “she may be poor but she is a powerful woman.With my films, that is how I am going to portray them,” says Uzzi.
Before our movie-going was curtailed by the pandemic, I took my mother to see She Is… (2019). Yes, the lead Frances (Somkele Idhalama) is desperate to be married and has little luck with love. But the movie is also about female fertility. This time, it is not witches from the village or botched abortions from her days of being a ‘bad girl’ that stop her getting pregnant. She has fibroids.
After the movie, my mother and I talked about fibroids and the higher risk of them among black women. She had seen friends suffer from them. We made a decision to get checked.
This is what nuanced female portrayal does. It shows that our lives are not one-dimensional and can be a great educational tool when done right. We need more of this. Nollywood is not there yet but the work has begun. As we continue to practice writing women like actual people — flaws, nuances and all — we positively shape the way the world sees Nigerian women and interact with them across spheres of life.