Drilling For a Blockbuster Culture is a Bleeding Vessel in Okpaleke’s Blood Vessel

Blood Vessel, as written by Musa Jeffery David and executively produced by Charles and Elvis Okpaleke of Playnetwork Studios, is an exercise in flagrant cultural misrepresentation.

The film, Blood Vessel, which premiered on Netflix in December 2023, sinks its jaw into the oil spillage debacle to draw a tale of love and the loss of it amidst a gang of stowaways. It is supposedly set, or at least originates, in the Niger Delta community of Nembe, which is about 64 kilometres south of Yenagoa, in the southern part of Nigeria and flaunts characters who claim Nembe roots. Not only does Blood Vessel circumvent every reasonable allusion to the core of Nembe practice and culture, it immerses itself in a false depiction and is littered with erroneous portrayals. 

At the risk of discounting the local dialect, the filmmakers opt for an Ijaw that is hardly a lingua franca of any quarter of Nembe. Characters converse, or try to, in this deviant tongue and themselves answer to generic Ijaw names like Oyinbraekemi and Abbey (which is itself seldom a name in the culture from which it has been lifted). These words have only the slightest etymological connection to what is recognized in Nembe. 

The Ijaw language enjoys dominance within the Niger Delta both for the numerical strength of its speakers and as a parent language for many dialects in the region. But contrary to what is rendered in the story, its utilization is far from overarching. Coastal tribes such as the Nembe people maintain a distinct Nembe dialect that is as distinguishable from Ijaw as black is from white. 

The problem with Blood Vessel‘s blunder in shoving this notable marker of Nembe culture beneath the carpeting effect of the larger Ijaw one is that the Okpaleke brothers end up dismissing the cultural heterogeneity of this region and succeed in sharing a skewed identity of the Nembe people with millions of viewers. 


In the bitter ensemble of cultural mishaps, one error manages to stand out as a malicious onslaught. Less than 30 minutes into the narration, a fretting character has emerged with a python around their neck. Viewers are sold the idea that the snake is a harmless deity, and not wrongly so. Adumu, as Oyinbraekemi (Adaobi Dibor) referred to it, is an age-long belief by itself and arguably at the fore of Nembe tradition. Yet it is only a few seconds before this deity is playing dinner in the mouths of its own worshippers. Viewers are to understand that these fugitives who have not been fugitives for two complete hours have undergone as much tribulation as wrecks their sense of spirituality. 

If nothing else, agitators, or Niger Delta militants as they are popularly known, are among the most devout of deity worship in Bayelsa. This is so for many reasons, one of which is the spiritism associated with their unpopular methods of requiring fairness in the Niger Delta oil struggle. So how come about Boma (Jidekene Achufusi) and Degbe (Levi Chikere), both of whom ostensibly mirror these agitator roles, being the first to insinuate the delicious nature of this god on the tongue and organize its sacred flesh against a spit like an action performed countless times already? 

A loose-fit explanation for this profanity comes many scenes later in a plugged-in flashback. Abbey (Ezekiel Daniel) sets out to convince his love interest, Oyinbraekemi (Adaobi Dibor) that it is rather the belief in spirits and prophecies that make them ‘real’. It is not obvious what the filmmakers aim to convey with this backhanded deprecation, but if Blood Vessel has ridden on this idea to advance its plot, it has only proven to be nothing more than a mischievous enterprise. While the random distribution of fates at the end of the movie balks from complementing the shoddy idea and exposes the filmmaker’s inadequacy the cultural upset instigated therewith remains untenable.  

Except the Okpalekes harbour subtle motives to denigrate the very culture they appear to want to represent, the fact ought to remain that the python, even under the circumstance of biting hunger, is not a delicacy anywhere in the length and breadth of Nembe. 


The world is at a critical stage in its political and social orientation, where what may have been too primitive for the screen is fast becoming the selling point for emergent societies. It must therefore be drummed that the appreciation of culture is beyond plucking a pricey Nok Head from the dirt in Jemaa in Kaduna and polishing it to decorate a shelf in Ikoyi in Lagos. 

Culture is a people’s manner of thriving. It defines and marks them in a culturally overwhelmed world. Its application in any context must avoid being in conflagration with that from which it originates. The makers of Blood Vessel did not appear to have paid attention to this important bit of information. 


It is easy to link this abuse to another recent fiasco; the gun-wielding Eyo masquerades in Jade Osiberu’s Gangs of Lagos and the backlash from the Isale-Eko Descendants Union. While the Okpalekes make nonsense of a revered deity, Osiberu rebrands Eyo Masquerade to her taste by taking away its staff and replacing it with an active gun. Gangs of Lagos, in advancing its plot, strips the Eyo of its ultimate spiritual significance and shrouds it in the red cloth of street-side criminality. 

Both movies reduce sensitive symbols to film props, poke large holes in harmless communal rituals and scream the same thing; that such cultural entities and the belief in them will find no strain of dignity in the modern world (of Nollywood). 

At the time of the distribution of Gangs of Lagos, rumours were floated about a court case seeking to discredit the movie as reputational damage and an uncouth misrepresentation of the spiritual phenomenon. It is unlikely that the aggrieved party had any staunch legal ground or even a structured case with which to sue Osiberu. But it should as well be common wisdom that no filmmaker ought to presume to understand a culture more than its practitioners and pursue overt liberties with its portrayal. 

Defenders of the Okpalekes and Osiberu’s actions have touted a certain freedom that an artist is permitted to express. They have remarked that these creators have simply worked within the tether of the loose rope fiction gives them and their creations should only be appraised in such light. As to that, neither Nembe nor Isale-eko is a fictional place and the underlying socio-political upheavals from which these films derive are not imagined constructs. Indeed, these arguments fall flat as fiction is to no degree a synonym of falsehood. 

It is worth adding that these defences are made in mindless furtherance of the otherness generally directed at traditional religious practice in Nigeria. It is hard to think of a Christian smiling at any improbable depiction of Christ and a Muslim shrugging to a caricature of their most revered messenger, no matter how much fiction is introduced into the applied scripts. The inevitable result of letting this dangerous trend fly unclipped is that Nollywood assumes a free pass to muddle the cultural landscape and tear down heritages even as we become enablers for the disrespect of this institution. 


To correct the Okpalekes’s error, we may draw a more positive example from Chiwetel Ejiofor’s adeptness in his own 2019 movie, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, shot on location in Malawi and acted in both English and a properly executed Chichewa of the Bantu people. Ejiofor himself, with Nigerian roots and British training, responding in an interview, talked about going over a line of Chichewa for over 45 minutes. This ability of a filmmaker to concern themselves with the elements of a foreign culture is as much an offshoot of their expertise as it is the presence of the right amount of empathy required for such artistic execution. The Okpalekes did not exercise such nuance of professionalism in handling an underrepresented Nembe. 

As for location, it is arguable that Blood Vessel was shot anywhere but in Nembe town. The unfamiliarity of the locations is only a minor talking point. In the scene where Abbey parses Oyin through an AC-vacated hole, we read the headline on a wall calendar, clearly stating: ‘Anglican Communion, Diocese of Okrika.’ The issue here is that the Anglican Diocese of Okrika covers parts of Rivers state and none of Nembe. 

While it is possible to explain away this oversight, it will always be hard to shake it away from the mind that apart from a shared oil conflict, there may just be no Nembe in this movie and its makers might not have been as concerned about the plight of Nembe as we are wont to think. True, scenes may be simulated and don’t have to be shot in precise locations. But not when up to half of the scenes claim that vicinity. 


As Nigeria, through Netflix and other streaming platforms, opens up its chest of cultural emblems to the world and filmmakers are traversing the hinters of the country to mine the abundant gold of unpopular stories, a strict character of diligent research must be imbibed to full measure. This prevents millions of viewers from forming wrong first impressions about any society. Every filmmaker owes it to themselves to know that beyond the zeal and ability to tell a story is the obligation to tell it properly. 

Like the political disturbance Blood Vessel latches on where crude oil is extracted at the gruesome price of an environmental disaster, the Okpaleke duo have drilled a story and left a cultural disaster in their wake. If some advice may be offered going forward, here is one; take forever to research a culture you desire to represent in your story. Filmmakers must subject themselves to such moral obligation in order that we don’t take as long to sanitize our reputation as Ogoni has endured to date to be rid of the crude oil spilled throughout its waters

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