Lionhearts The Artistic Novelty of Nigerian Women Directors

With directors like Kemi Adetiba and Genevieve Nnaji, women telling women’s stories is the saving grace that Nollywood never knew it needed.

The business of filmmaking, like every aspect of our world since the inception of mass states, is very male-driven. Arguably, the biggest movie industries in the world, Hollywood, Nollywood, and Bollywood, have a formidable, ersatz founding father community. While the process of making a film is largely extensive and multi-crewed, the director has the critical artistic control of the process; is the one who manoeuvres the movie’s dramatic aspects, visualizes the script, and guides the crew and actors in bringing the script to life.

On a global scale, there have been significant arguments challenging male dominance in the directing field. The character development of Cersei in the television show, Game of Thrones, for example, was criticized for its flimsy portrayal of her intuitions, actions, and resulting consequences. A dominant argument among critics was that the show was a clear example of why male directors and screenwriters find it difficult to prescribe women’s emotions, thoughts, and reactions properly.

In evaluating the dominating social power of patriarchy, it can be summarily concluded that film and television shows are made for the male audience. It is a logical conclusion, given the androcentric dominance in language and other aspects of the western lived experience. Therefore, with a male-centred audience, script, and director, the consciousness and experiences of women are no doubt misrepresented.

Making inferences based on apparent information, the global status quo assumes that the average man cannot fathom women’s consciousness and experiences. On the flip side, women are taught from birth, through film, literature, television and other intrusive media, how to understand men. Men have counteractively established a universal joke that women cannot be understood. Therefore, they probably should not be prescribing the character developments of some of the most powerful women on TV.

The advent of a female-directed superhero movie in 2017, Wonder Woman, demonstrated just how innovative women directing women-led stories can be; intrinsic emotions and reservations which might be oblivious to a male director resonated with Patty Jenkins and she ensured that Wonder Woman is the intense masterpiece that it is today. Perhaps an argument one can make against subsequent women-directed movies is that these stories might be too gynocentric for mainstream media. But film and TV have been androcentric for so long that a gynocentric story might be the breather that virtual storytelling needs.  However, this argument takes the risk of adopting an essentialist position with women-directed films. This strategic essentialist approach engaged in criticising male-directed stories is in fact not an attempt to discredit male directors but an acknowledgement of female-directed masterpieces.

Two Nigerian women directors are highlighted for their acclaimed women-led stories Kemi Adetiba’s King of Boys and Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart. The latter being Nigeria’s pitch for the Oscars 2020 Best International Feature Film Award. In Nigerian film-making, the 2010s premiered popular culture’s celebration of directors. The inclusion of Nigerian-directed movies in global film festivals such as Subversive Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, amongst others is a significant reflection of this.

However, despite these victories, the gendered metaphors of the glass ceiling and leaky pipeline have been associated with women directors in the male-dominated Nigerian film industry. The glass ceiling implies self and structural repression in the industry while the leaky pipeline connotes the underrepresentation of women directors in the profession. Women directors, including Amaka Igwe, Tope Oshin, Mildred Okwo, amongst others, have fought actively to decenter male dominance while asserting their rights to equal opportunities and pay. These experiences are curated in the Tope Oshin’s 2016 documentary, Amaka’s Kin: The Women of Nollywood.

In 2012, Kemi Adetiba directed the critically acclaimed movie, The Wedding Party, and soon became a household name. She cemented her status as the self-proclaimed ‘Bruce Lee of Visuals’ with the 2018 film, King of Boys. The film presents a tale of female power and not female empowerment. Rhetorics of power in most stories present a woman ‘empowered’ by some mentor without whom she would not exist. However, Eniola Salami, the titular king of boys, singularly took and embodied power, going on to create an enabling environment for her daughter‘s own embodiment of power.

A veteran actress in her own right, Lionheart (2018) marked Genevieve Nnaji’s directorial debut. The movie presents a tale of women’s strength and incredible perseverance. When the business empire under her control was about to crumble, the protagonist Adaeze, a literal lionheart, is faced with the responsibility of saving her family’s transport business. She enlists the help of her very own side-kick, her father’s brother, Godswill, on this quest.

The film focuses on family, business and a love-hate relationship between siblings, where the daughter struggles to earn the singular cultural privilege reserved for boys. In this way, King of Boys and Lionheart share some inherent similarities. However, the films differ in their protagonist’s approach to handling their problems. A rattling force within both movies is the prevalence of the patriarchy, and we see both women approach it from very different yet seemingly effective angles. As patriarchy is a formidable social order in real life and in virtual storytelling, women have learned to create a stake within the superstructure.

King of Boys uses patriarchy to its singular advantage in the portrayal of Eniola Salami. It does not necessarily romanticize her manipulating a man to gain total control of his wealth and power. But it highlights this as her origin story, the beginning of a successful and thriving empire which patriarchy’s sons attempt to take away from her. Eniola’s agency is very nearly disenabled after losing her two children in a power tussle with the story’s ‘masters of mankind’. However, an unlikely ally, policeman Nurudeen Gobir, who was formerly out to bring her down, realizes that she is not the enemy. Instead, Eniola is more of a hustler trying to evade the decimating shackles of patriarchy. With his help, she nullifies her oppositions and restructures her threatened empire.

Lionheart finds an alternative approach to creating a stake, opting to secure sustenance through a marriage-business alliance. However, this does not undermine the force that is Adaeze. Fighting through to the end to thwart the schemes of misogynistic oppositions who belittled her abilities, she went as far as the North to find an ally. This was a bold slap in the face for the doubly bigoted opposition. Armed with her secured alliance in the family’s business, Adaeze will go on to work with her newly acquired husband to raise their business from a regional enterprise to a national conglomerate.

While Lionheart shies from using wily charms to gain power, King of Boys is unabashed in its brash use of sexuality in the agenda to build an empire. Yet both stories are charmingly inspiring tales in which women are their own empowerment, especially when taking into consideration a context where slurring empowerment rhetoric is adopted in reference to women and girls.

Adetiba and Nnaji present authentic stories that represent the struggle of women politicians, entrepreneurs and leaders in one way or the other. Along with this, for a critical feminist thinker, a solid argument can be put forward about how African feminist tenets are reflected in contemporary women-directed movies. Especially as the tropes are reminiscent of arguments presented by Motherism (the philosophy that promotes the essence of African womanhood and motherhood); Nego-feminism (feminism that prescribes a negotiation between the sexes on gender and power relations); and Stiwanism (the theory that argues praxis for social transformation must include women).

Representation matters, especially as it subverts normalized and marginalizing narratives. In the movie theatre, I saw men and women rooting for Eniola in King of Boys, a film that could have made the intriguing male antagonist, Makanaki, its focus. Likewise, in Lionheart, Godswill was essentially what he was supposed to be to Adaeze, a supporting character. Women telling women’s stories is the saving grace that Nollywood never knew it needed. Embodying the consciousness and experiences of women in various guises, these movies present colourful and incredibly exciting women-directed epic stories, with rich returns and even richer worldwide appeal