Netflix’s new alliance with Nollywood has seen the re-release of many recent hits on its platform. Along with the new attention, social media debates have resurged around the quality of the Nigerian film industry and, in particular, Nollywood’s crisis of representation.
I am listening to Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey’s ‘Edumare Soro Mi Dayo’ from the Spotify compilation Faaji Agba and it strikes me how much of a politic happiness is in Nigeria. Misery, in Nigeria, does not love company, and when Obey sings ‘Oríburúkú kìí ṣe tèmi ò, ẹ̀bẹ̀ mo bẹ̀’, it is as much a prayer as it is a warning. Nigerians will often say that we are happy people. Our happiness is energetic, cordial and able to dredge up humour even in the most abject circumstances. Ours is a communal happiness that flows from the individual to their environment and back, defiant, the very building blocks of Nigerian sociality.
The culture of happiness is the most powerful and pervasive agent in Nigeria today, and Nollywood is one of its biggest curators. In the 2007 essay ‘Nollywood in Lagos, Lagos in Nollywood Films’, Jonathan Haynes describes Nollywood as ‘an extraordinary example of coping mechanism that keeps Africa alive… constructed on the slenderest of means and without anyone’s permission’. All caveats on this overly celebratory description of Nollywood issued (see Akin Adesokan’s ‘Anticipating Nollywood’), it is interesting to trace the role of happiness in stitching Nigeria’s frayed social fabric.
THE FUNCTION OF HAPPINESS
Netflix’s new alliance with Nollywood has seen the re-release of many recent hits on its platform. Along with the new attention, social media debates have resurged around the quality of the Nigerian film industry and, in particular, Nollywood’s crisis of representation. For many, it is enough that there are Nigerians behind the major representations of the country and Nigerians in music, film, and art. Africans are increasingly shaping dominant narratives about the continent and Nollywood’s defenders often argue that the preponderance of elitist narratives is an antidote to portrayals of African backwardness in Western media. Mostly, however, they argue that Nollywood is the way it is because viewers demand escapism. Nigerians like Nollywood as it is, the argument goes, because stories about the Nigerian upper classes, for example, suit the Nigerian’s perpetual optimism. Nollywood sparks joy, and Nigerians particularly enjoy Nollywood’s happy stories. But happiness, if often unassuming, is not always benign. Sara Ahmed’s work on the history of happiness teaches us about the function of happiness as a blindfold that legitimates certain worldviews while obscuring others, and can turn a private wish into a general desire.
‘If objects provide a means for making us happy, then in directing ourselves toward this or that object, we are aiming somewhere else: toward a happiness that is presumed to follow’, Ahmed writes. Continuous positive engagement with Nollywood would indicate that the industry is a bringer of happiness for Nigerians. The highest-grossing Nigerian films in recent history are disproportionately comedies, displaying markers of Nigerian happiness. Many like The Royal Hibiscus Hotel (2018), The Wedding Party 2 (2017) and Chief Daddy (2018) feature characters who leave the country and return—the epitome of the Nigerian dream. Their settings are urban, and their themes centred around the individual. They are aspirational, often featuring the lives Nigerians admire and pursue. We are the heroes and heroines by identification. So, what does our disproportionate patronage of these kinds of film tell us about ourselves?
‘MONEY MAKES THE WORLD GO ROUND’
Effervescent happiness is a by-product of wealth in Nigeria. Fewer events in Nigeria have garnered as much public consent for signifying a good life as shopping trips, photoshoots, vacationing, and wedding celebrations. These modes of pleasure are by no means singular to Nigerians, and, by themselves, are rather innocuous, at least to the extent that access to such means is not tied to the misery of others. The problem here lies in the standardization of these and their use as a metric for a person’s value or validity. Those who cannot meet this standard must try to associate with it: we will point to ‘the Nigeria they don’t show you’ even if we don’t have the means to partake of that Nigeria but harbour the ever-present hope that it could happen.
The role of the wealthy icon in Nigeria should not be underestimated as a rallying lifestyle principle, and unlike Class’s kin, Race, backlash against class disparity is largely subdued by the presumed permeability of class boundaries. You may not be able to change your skin colour but you, too, can become rich. This is the stake on which the Nigerian dream is pegged. ‘In wishing for happiness we wish to be associated with happiness, which means to be associated with its associations’, Sara Ahmed writes. Ahmed considers happiness to be world making, fashioning the world through the normativity of (a certain kind of) sociality. World making in this sense is synonymous to value making—‘Where we find happiness,’ she notes, ‘teaches us what we value rather than simply what is of value. Happiness not only becomes what is valued but allows other values to acquire their value. When happiness is assumed to be a self-evident good, then it becomes evidence of the good.’
The role of the indigenous elite—the indigenous visible—in the proliferation and normalization of what Ahmed calls ‘happiness objects’—things, phenomena whose instrumentality is towards causing happiness—cannot be understated. If having what wealth provides equals happiness in the popular imagination and happiness is good, then the right to acquire happiness by any means necessary must be inalienable. Fraud or bribery may be bad, but can they be inexcusable if they allow one access to a happiness they could not have acquired otherwise? Therefore, we value the happiness of the extravagant wealthy because they show us what we hope to become.
The didactic nature of Nigerian cultures persistently constructs good and evil as binaries, except, glaringly in the case of happiness. The perversion of jungle justice in Nigeria is perhaps the most easily reachable illustration for this point. One wonders how many people have received their death sentences having been accused of thieving mere food in Nigerian public spaces. The treatment of the corrupt wealthy, however, is never the same. Many a convicted ex-official are welcomed back with fanfare on their release from prison. We can believe on one level that they have behaved questionably but concede on the other that they deserve whatever happiness they have gotten. Because we respect the hustle, their happiness trumps the grief of their victims. Our defence of their enjoyment is a defence of our potential enjoyment because through rampant inequality we are aware that amoral concessions often must be made to access enjoyment. Happiness, being the preferred option, is always defensible, our conception of it nuanced. Misery, on the other hand, rarely receives such close consideration, even though it is arguably the most prevalent emotion in today’s Nigeria.
Through Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Ahmed arrives at a conception of happiness as a self-centred instrument of maintaining social order. ‘Happiness translates its wish into a politics, a wishful politics, a politics that demands that others live according to a wish,’ Ahmed explains. We assume for others the satisfaction we feel in ourselves. How does one quantify the happiness of a person in need who has received a gift? What does it cement in the worldview of the giver? Ahmed asks, for example, what we will allow if we see a woman as happy in her duty as mother and homemaker? Happiness lures us into a ‘false consciousness’ of the world, it assumes as normal the abnormal to deny the unsettling.
We are happy for Adaeze’s success in Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart; Adaeze being a woman thrust into an insecure work-life by her father’s poor business decisions. We are satisfied when she is rewarded for what we hold dear as virtues in the world—hard work, beauty, and respect for elders. But what if one goes back to the unruly passengers at the film’s beginning who serve as fodder for our appreciation of Adaeze’s business acumen and wit? Say we go back to the traders and commuters gracing the background as Adaeze takes her jogs with her security guard in tow and her personal driver behind. What is Adaeze’s happiness to these people we see but are not supposed to pay attention to? What, and who does Adaeze’s happiness—which is, because we root for her, our happiness—blind us to and how does this blindness maintain our self-perpetuating world?
It seems neither fair nor productive to compare Adaeze’s character to that of a corrupt politician. Adaeze runs what appears to be a transparent business; the other traffics in exploitation. Both characters fit neatly into that easy binary of good and evil, but perhaps, if we agree that we let certain awareness slip through the cracks in our justification of happiness, we should probe how its glorification weakens our capacity for wider critical understanding of social inequality.
What differentiates good or bad for us is the means to the end. We understand the downsides of happiness when it comes to the route taken to achieve it. However, our moral focus on the means obscures a fact about the ends of happiness—that whether it is the happiness of Adaeze or of the internet fraudster, its ultimate effect is the exclusion of those left out and a normalization of ‘happiness objects’ which remain largely inaccessible to the majority. ‘To think of happiness as involving an end-oriented intentionality is to suggest that happiness is already associated with some things more than others’, Ahmed writes. We know which things are associated with happiness in Nigeria, and it is no coincidence that they are centred around wealth.
UNHAPPINESS AS POLITICAL
‘Can we rewrite the history of happiness from the point of view of the wretch?’ demands Ahmed:
If we listen to those who are cast as wretched, then perhaps their wretchedness would no longer belong to them. The sorrow of the stranger might give us a different angle on happiness, not because it teaches us what it is like or must be like to be a stranger but because it might estrange us from the very happiness of the familiar.
And so only by killing our own joy can we truly understand the nature of happiness. To reveal the causes of happiness, Ahmed holds, is to cause unhappiness, but community demands we be killjoys time and again, and that we learn to live and work with discomfort as illumination.
Skin, Beverly Naya’s 2019 documentary on the pervasiveness of skin bleaching in urban Nigeria, would seem at first glance to explore unhappiness, the result of lightening one’s skin. The visible marks of deteriorating skin which the camera periodically pans to attests to this. Naya asks a trader if she regrets bleaching her skin. The woman replies ‘no’, and her mood shifts just before she begins to cry. We are invited to conceive these tears as contrition, regret for altering her skin. Naya’s interpreter laughs uncomfortably while Naya places a consoling arm on the woman’s, who then attempts to gather her dignity as the camera continues to focus on her motions. Supporting text indicates that the potion she is mixing from her wares costs ₦500, immediately converted to $1.30. But perhaps, in this moment, it is not regret the trader feels as much as it is chastisement, exposed to the world as she is by the unforgiving camera. In any case, we will never know, for this trader remains unnamed and is never revisited in the film. Oris Aigbokhaevbolo’s ‘Bobrisky and the Problem with Beverly Naya’s Skin’ offers some more insight into the paucity of class analyses in the documentary.
Skin quite suddenly swerves towards happiness—the happiness of Eku Edewor, the biracial actress who dangles her dual passports in front of the camera, joyous in her ability to secure roles in Nollywood. The happiness of Naya herself who takes us to her ancestral home in Asaba, where she has rarely been and confesses to hold to low standards. The happiness of the self-satisfied viewer with unchanged skin whose rightness is reinstated, happiness built on the denial of class relations in Nigeria, built on a lie that the world is the same for dark-skinned women and light-skinned ones, echoed by the actress Hilda Dokubo who, without a hint of irony, says ‘Kate Henshaw, Genevieve Nnaji, Omoni Oboli… can buy any kind of bleaching cream at whatever price. They have not and they are successful and brilliant at what they do. If they can succeed, then anyone can’. Their happiness shrouds the unhappiness of our unnamed trader, known to us only by her trade of shea butter, sulphur, and skin lightening agents worth $1.30. Their happiness allows us to view skin lightening as a puzzling individual choice rather than a politic of survival in a world where desirability is linked to opportunity. Therefore, we must investigate happiness, the kind that, according to Ahmed, ‘covers unhappiness by covering its cause’. To leave it untouched is to standardize the world as is, but to change anything we must be ‘willing to venture into secret places of pain… The freedom to be happy can be translated into a freedom to avoid proximity to whatever compromises one’s happiness. The very idea that our first responsibility is to our own happiness is what allows us to look away’.
SERVANTS OF HAPPINESS
An uncomfortable indictment of the Nigerian conception of happiness is its revolving around service—the ability to have others do for one whatever one desires. Nollywood’s portrayal of luxury is largely dependent on this. Ebony Life’s Chief Daddy dedicates quite a few of the film’s opening scenes to showing us Chief Daddy’s numerous in-house staff. The camera pans from the gatekeeper, to the gardener, to the house matron whom we follow in her supervision of the multiple cooks slaving away behind their chopping boards. These scenes are sliced through with scenes of the Chief’s wife, Lady Kay Beecroft, sitting in a salon chair with an attendant painting her nails and another at her hair, her son, an aspiring musician, at a studio recording an album and so on.
The lives behind domestic hands are hardly ever visible beyond their service to their wealthy patrons. The characters are mostly deferent, un(der)educated, desexualized—the infantilized, Nigerianized ‘mammy character’, like Mama Pat in Chief Daddy or Bisola in Eddy Young’s Kasanova. We are persuaded that the help is happy about their role in life as the maintainers of others’ happiness, even though the prevalence of abuse against domestic workers in Nigeria has been recorded repeatedly, seen again when Ini Edo’s character in Chief Daddy, Ekanem, slaps the doorman for opening the gate a little too late for her liking.
Perhaps the harsh truth is that these roles, these characters, and their equivalents off-screen reinstate for us an ordering of the world that we are comfortable with. The simplicity of those characters goes without saying for us. They are portrayed as doting, eager to please, leading uncomplicated lives with no more desires than to earn a living wage and secure our happiness. We seldom question their consent with their situations or our implicit surmising that their performance of happiness legitimizes their position in the social hierarchy. It is useful to ask how much of the construction of domestic staff under colonialism we have retained in post-colonial Nigeria. C.L.R. James describes in Party Politics in the West Indies the postcolonial elite’s belief in an ‘unshakeable principle that they are in status, education, morals and manners separate and distinct from the masses of people’.
That subjects of colonialism mimic whiteness is universal, made necessary by the construction of a world where proximity to whiteness becomes proximity to resources. But the benefits of this mimicry are decided by access to capital. So, do we, in our representations of those unable to mimic properly, punish them? Nollywood happiness is dependent on a departure from the poor, characterized by obvious assimilation into Western aesthetics of luxury—the exaggerated air kisses, the grand dining, the high-toned accent, the lethargy. Suppose we told the story of happiness through the eye of the help, even the happy help like the typecast Toyin Abraham character, what would we find? Would we find, like with Ahmed’s happy wife, ‘not just ideas of happiness but ideas of who is entitled to happiness’?
To dull the audience to the sharp contrast in the quality of life between the help and the patron, the patron is portrayed as benevolent. Chief Daddy sponsors Madam Pat’s daughter to university in London. Eniola Salami, in King of Boys, beguiles us with her philanthropy and larger-than-life attitude with which she garners social acceptance. Ultimately, however, she wields her wealth to accumulate power without accountability, resorting to bribery, torture, and murder like her male colleagues. The title, which masculinizes her while infantilizing the men around her to position her as the supreme mastermind among her peers, seems to deem the inclusion of women in oppressive systems as the pinnacle of their liberation. It is disregarded that to those at the margins of society, it matters little what gender it is that hold the whips that lash them, and characteristically, like for Adaeze in Lionheart, it is these margin dwellers who feature as backdrop and casualty for Eniola’s lionization. What does the happiness we feel for Eniola’s victory imply? At whose expense are these characters’ lives guaranteed?
‘UNLOOKING’ CLASS RELATIONS IN NOLLYWOOD
Class is the dominant connecting feature in so-called ‘old’ and ‘new’ Nollywood—the state of having, whether the struggle for it in the former or the use of it in the latter. It anchors both periods’ sense of obligation to their Nigerian audience where in ‘Old’ Nollywood, as Adesokan writes in ‘Nollywood and the idea of the Nigerian Cinema’, morality plays a significant role in fostering a coherent sense of place and Nigerians’ relation to it in the post-independence environment. Moradewun Adejunmobi, in a supporting argument, writes in ‘Neoliberal Rationalities in Old and New Nollywood’ that these earlier films were broadly ‘concerned with moral economies in the postcolonial economy’. ‘Old Nollywood’ explores the desire for social mobility, people moving from the Nigerian periphery to urban spaces and the ethical demands of class transcendency, evidenced by the prevalence of occult-themed stories and the journey to success. Think of the stories of simple folk who leave the village in the search for economic returns and whose experiences we would usually follow to their success or folly. Think of the campus lady-turned-prostitute or man-turned-cultist who attempt to live above their means and are unfailingly punished for their aspiration.
‘New Nollywood’, on the other hand, privileges the individual, rather than the communal. It features more employed, middle-class characters settled in comfortable lives akin to that of their contemporaries in the West. These stories, Adejunmobi argues, grapple with the sensitivities of neoliberal culture. Our new protagonists are ‘engaged in a process of self-discovery and self-affirmation for personal benefit’. Their struggles and moral conflicts revolve around their self-actualization, not typically constrained by structural barriers. Their growth is often not dependent on communal consent. Their plots develop around their ability to make good lifestyle choices for which they are compensated.
Niyi Akinmolayan’s Elevator Baby is a good example of Adejunmobi’s description of the ‘new Nollywood’ model. A recalcitrant young man with wealthy parents on whom he is largely dependent is stuck on an elevator with a poor, pregnant maid whose baby he helps to deliver. The story’s plot is hinged upon his chance encounter with this unfortunate woman as catalyst for his character development.
Ownership of means is inherent to ‘new Nollywood’s thematic preoccupation. A very important position Adejunmobi takes is that the lack of moral panic and postmodern pessimism that ‘new Nollywood’ evinces despite rampant persistent inequality in the country seems to show that these new filmmakers might truly believe that ‘individual effort coupled with advanced formal education guarantees middle-class prosperity’ because they come themselves from backgrounds like this. What reality is suspended for that belief, however, considering the high unemployment rate amongst educated Nigerians?
Dare is the individual focus in Elevator Baby, foregrounded by the massing of everyone around him outside his social class. It cannot be enough that Abigail, the pregnant woman, is down on her luck and in labour on a dysfunctional elevator, her exaggerated illiteracy must serve as reinforcement of our perception of the difference between her and the protagonist. They are opposing characters whose worlds essentially crash into each other; the elevator symbol is an important illustrator of spatial power here—the elevator as class delineator. An elevator serves a similar role in Omoni Oboli’s Wives at War: The Revolution. Mirroring its practical function, our elevator shows who belongs up and down in society.
Elevator Baby’s working-class characters are characterized by gluttony, vice, ‘body odour’ and laziness. The body of the Woman-in-Pain serves as catalyst for our protagonist’s moral evolution literally in Abigail’s pregnant body and in her boss’s pain caused by her husband’s affair whose news is splashed all over the internet for our conflict’s denouement. Dare is the hero at the end securing another win for the happiness of the Nollywood individual.
WE SHOULD ALL BE‘KILLJOYS’
The poor exist for our happiness, Nollywood often seems to say, but this construction of happiness as diversion from misery and poverty is damaging because it naturalizes a happiness dependent on proximity to those familiar happiness objects. Ahmed tells us, ‘happiness involves the comfort of repetition, of following lines that have already been given in advance…. Happiness involves the labour of staying on the right path’. Happiness in Nollywood is set to a formula, x + y= z, and it has accrued a potent, socially affective ability to secure the fantasy of Nigerian modernity. To puncture this fantasy, however, requires that we be killjoys, that we disturb the idea of happiness—an uncomfortable job on which depends our collective futurity. ‘Unhappiness becomes an inheritance of the violence of history’, Ahmed writes, an inheritance of cruel reality puncturing the charade of the happiness.
In 2017, late former Oyo State governor, Abiola Ajumobi’s addressed a group of frustrated LAUTECH students at a protest, admonishing them for a lack of respect for constituted authority. His was a demand for the performance of happiness from the students, a happiness which would have dulled the sharpness of their criticism and allowed the continuation of the pretence of an unawareness or non-severity of their grievance. It was a demand that entrenched their role as background characters, whose purpose was to show gratitude to the wealthy protagonist.
Happiness is a cover, a justification to maintain the status quo, and refusing to present happiness during objectively unhappy circumstances is, as Ahmed identifies, ‘a political struggle’. Joining this struggle requires the unflinching recognition of unhappiness. For Nollywood’s good and ours, we must interrogate the supposedly happy stories presented to us, identifying those on whose backs the happiness is borne⎈
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