A Personal Review of Mami Wata CJ ‘Fiery’ Obasi’s Mami Wata and the Repositioning of Nollywood

CJ ‘Fiery’ Obasi’s Mami Wata is a meticulously crafted film with the soul of true filmmaking in it. While it is worthy of the celebration it has had, is it truly a great movie?

A senior critic once explained why he stopped writing reviews of Nollywood films: there was just too much labour our directors put into making movies, oftentimes lacking the right equipment and resources. A good standpoint, I agree, because when we actually look at the landscape, the least we can say, budget costs and all, and the lack of support from the government, is that our directors are putting in work. His submission, I think, was because he finally became tired of the too many negative reviews he was writing up till then. Not much has changed in the last five years since Lionheart, the first Nollywood movie featured on Netflix, tried to shift the culture; to critique Nollywood today and demand range from it is to build a reputation as a serial complainer.  

I do not care deeply for Nollywood at the moment. The avalanche of its recent output, since the leverage of Netflix and a reviving cinema culture in the post-pandemic years, has been a pandering to capitalism. Valid nonetheless, the industry remains a source of job creation; Nigeria’s philistinism and hardship doesn’t give room for art that is ‘high seriousness’ anyway. I believe, just as our music took time and finally arrived at where it is today, that Nollywood is also in a pre-Big-Bang phase, collecting cosmic dust.  

When director C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi announced on X (formerly known as Twitter), in December 2022, that his movie, Mami Wata, had been selected for Sundance Film Festival 2023 in the US,  I was distantly excited—the emotion one has when another Nigerian has done something monumental on the global stage—and happy for him. But I was curious as well. What is this movie, especially because of the praise that trailed it, and seeing that I’d recently written a 4,000-word essay on the same subject of his movie title, i.e., the Tiv moniwata masquerade? I had to see Fiery’s movie. 


I live in the slow city of Makurdi, Benue’s capital, where there’s only one cinema. On 8th September, the D-day Mami Wata was showing in Nigeria, I received a call from culture journalist, Emmanuel Esomnofu, informing me he was in Asaba with two other writers to see the movie. I told him I was going to miss being part of that history that day because the movie wasn’t showing in my city. But I had underrated the cinema in my backyard. When I checked their Instagram page, I was surprised to see it had actually shown the movie on that same day. Two days later, I went to see the movie with another friend, Somto, who turned out to be a good sport, participating in a keen viewer’s response with me throughout the experience of seeing the 1hr 47mins movie.  

It is a monochromatic immersion when the 4K-shot video comes on and runs for the initial minutes. A bit of disorientation assails you as you imagine the monochrome goes on for the next one hour, forty-something minutes. Waves froth and crash against the big screen. A young woman in an adire gown knots her braids. She is silent, almost absent-minded; then we see her rise and walk into the sea. In the next scene, a woman, the young woman’s mother, is beseeching the priestess (Rita Edochie) of the town’s goddess, the Mami Wata, to help her return her daughter who has been carried off by the water goddess. Obstinately, the priestess or ‘asayi’, very characteristic of ossified traditionalists, insists nothing can be done, that Mami Wata takes any maiden she wants. She intones indifferently, ‘Your pikin no die. Na there she for don go. You sef know say na so e be.’   

I remember long-time New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik’s sentiment about going to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical, Hamilton, when he wrote, ‘I will admit that I went to “Hamilton”, hard-won ticket in hand, with the critic’s . . . sneer stuck on my face, and even a pre-written critique stuffed into the pocket of my mental blazer,’ because he had been told by ‘a friend of good judgment’ that Hamilton was a ‘great work of art, so far, of the twenty-first century.’ I didn’t have Gopnik’s sentiments, but I was nonetheless driven by the praise following Fiery’s film as I sat in the film hall of Exodus Cinema.   

For almost 45 minutes into the movie, I didn’t get the experience commensurate with the high praise the movie had received. I hadn’t read any reviews of it. Somto was beside me trying to catch the experience, too. The turning point for us, and I think, of the movie too, is when the priestess has a vision of herself being murdered by Jabi (Kelechi Udegbe), leader of a rebel gang against Mami Wata worship, and the plot that mounts to the eventual murder. Up to this point, the movie suffers a lack of profluence often characteristic of a weak script. This is accompanied by the actors’ stilted handling of dialogue as if still coming to terms with what they’re doing. In a nightlife scene, where Prisca (Evelyne Ily) complains about Zinwe’s (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) nonchalance towards Mami Wata worship, we pause by the scene’s fatigue, palled further by a guy who comes to Prisca—‘Mek we dance,’ he says, betraying any subtext to show us that the two are familiar or lovers as we find out later. It is too much to bear. However, the movie’s tempo changes from its turning point, the acting becoming more animated on the big screen. 


What counts as Mami Wata’s good points are the nuances and carefulness invested in it. No chances were taken with its camera angles, which any professional eye can recognize from afar. Also, its very detailed costuming and aesthetic elevation is prominent. One could call it an intelligent movie (I went back to see it and was able to see things I missed in my first watch). It aims for the style of the poetic and for the keen immersion by its viewers to catch this poetry. Its allegorical nuances in enacting visions and allusions of a Mami Wata séance, using soundscape and imagery, transposing viewers to the otherworldly, is not regular Nollywood.  

The sonar soundtrack (a double thud gbum gbum) used in tensed scenes hearkens to the nature of underwater which alludes to Mami Wata. The repeated scenes of an anguished Zinwe by the shore trying to communicate with Mami Wata, and her failure to, perfectly detail her existential angst and internal crisis. Another well-made scene is seeing the Nubian face of Prisca, as she has intercourse with Jasper (Emeka Amakeze), juxtaposed with a black-and-white shimmering ocean. It not only foreshadows Prisca as the next Mami Wata priestess, but raises the feminine mystique of the Mami Wata, and that of the goddess, as well as her allure, fitting perfectly into the narrative arc of the movie. Once again, not regular Nollywood.  

One may say that while not all stories need conflict in their first half to propel them, in Mami Wata, conflict—i.e. the priestess’s death—is what makes its story actually begin. It was such that I caught myself thinking, when the shadow of Jasper holding a gun is cast on the wall in a scene, if there could be a more original movie scene. However, I agree with the critic, Lovia Gyarkye, in The Hollywood Reporter that the movie relaxes its more contemplative tempo and devolves into the tropes of an action saga. But how can a story with Marxist ideologies leave out armed conflict?  

Nonetheless, watching Mami Wata was a fine experience. On our way home, I and Somto had a lot to discuss. For example, when in the plot were we shown that Jasper lost his penis, as Jabi and the other boys later mock him for? How did we miss it? Is he a hermaphrodite? Did he lose it after sleeping with Prisca, the goddess anointed? Was that why he turned against her and Iyi (the town) and joined Jabi’s gang? Why is Jasper such an interesting and strange character? What was the choice of his character by the director? I knew I had to return a second time to watch the movie. And I did.  

I followed a few movie accounts on Instagram and X this year as I sought more critical movies to watch. Criterion Channel, Film Aesthete, @fuckinggoodmovies. Mostly Hollywood. (But Kino’s Corner, on X, trumps all, for its very arcane preference.) I have seen the movie Whiplash (2014) featured across these channels, appearing in lists as an exceptional or very good movie. But it’s a very bad movie. So on @fuckinggoodmovies, I was compelled to say this when the same movie was featured once again, and commented: ‘I think this movie was an overdo. It was fairytale than reality.’ Someone replied: ‘I wouldn’t say it’s a bad movie, but it’s an overacted mess, for its subject matter. I appreciate your opinion because I think a lot of people are afraid to admit it’s not a great movie.’ 

Sadly, Mami Wata wasn’t my Hamilton, of which Adam Gopnik later pronounces after watching the musical, that ‘it’s even better than the praise implies’. Hyperbolic fanfare is a subculture of pop culture consumerism, especially when a work is sold as or imagined as having arrived as something nouveau or avant-garde. The quality of the work stops being measured, and its praise goes before it and after it. I believe this has happened with the movie Mami Wata. What it is, is a very careful movie with the soul of true filmmaking in it. It is on this premise that Mami Wata is worthy of the celebration it’s had, but not a great movie as praise-sang. I guess there’s more magic a Sundance win can do than one imagines. It is a great time for Fiery, nonetheless, one I am happy about, his hard work has been rewarded this way in one of those many hard-worn and fought Nigerian success stories. It is a great time for Nigerian filmmaking, sending a strong message to our directors to do more. Last year, the Nigerian Official Selection Committee for the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences couldn’t submit a Nigerian movie to the Oscars for its International Feature Film category, on the claims of finding none worthy. As Fiery’s celebrated movie breaks this jinx, we can say it is Mami Wata season

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