Patience Ozokwor, now 65 years old, is undoubtedly a Nollywood legend. Her career in the Nigerian movie industry is a testament to her passion, dedication, and genuine love for the art.
Growing up, one of the first names in the movie industry that I had in my head was ‘Mama G’, a nickname for Nigerian actress, Patience Ozokwor. Ozokwor became a household name in the 2000s thanks to her brilliant execution of strong-willed, charismatic, and outrageous characters that left a lasting impression on so many, including myself. Personally, the most memorable of her characters was one where she played the character known as Mama G in the 2002 movie, Old School.
Watching this movie again for the first time in many years reminds me of why and how Ozokwor successfully became a popular face on TV. Her portrayal of an unsettled wife and mother obsessed with the pleasures of life, constantly recollecting the exploits of her younger days and chanting self-praise (mostly with a bottle of beer in hand) reminded me of the early Nollywood era (1990s and 2000s) characterized by mostly comedic acting so natural that you could watch a three-part movie in one day. It’s no surprise that this character stuck with many over the years. To date, many refer to Ozokwor as Mama G. The early beginnings of her career is one of hard work and a case of being prepared when the opportunity comes. It’s no surprise that her legendary status has been complemented by numerous awards, including the Industry Merit Award at the 2023 Africa Magic Viewer’s Choice Award.
Ozokwor’s career trajectory started with the radio in Enugu. She left her teaching job for Radio Nigeria, where she started out as a producer of a children’s programme and then transitioned into an announcer and newscaster. Her career in radio would later influence the one on screen. ‘On radio, I was just acting a role and people didn’t even know my face. At that time, I just did what I thought I was enjoying without knowing where I was going. I wasn’t doing it with the hope of becoming a star,’ Ozokwor revealed in a 2019 interview. She has since acknowledged how working in radio shaped her acting career, saying that starting from the radio helped to build her delivery and ‘other elements necessary to succeed as an actor’.
Ozokwor’s acting career officially kicked off in the early 1990s when she took part in a soap opera by the Nigerian Television Authority titled Someone Cares. Taking up the role came naturally for her as she had previously featured in stage productions while in secondary school. Some of the plays she was involved in back then were The Gods Are Not to Blame and The Marriage of Anansewa. After Someone Cares, she then featured in movies in the 1990s such as Sins of the Father, Amina, and Odum, which ushered her breakthrough.
In 1999, Ozokwor starred in a movie titled Authority, which shot her to instant fame. But the journey to securing this role was the result of her hard work and track record. When a marketer was looking for who to play the protagonist, one of the production managers told them to go find the actress in Amina and Odum, saying she would be the perfect fit for the role. In Authority, Ozokwor was a mother-in-law at loggerheads with her daughter-in-law. After Authority was released, she earned new fans and became known as ‘Authority’. In due time, she began to secure more roles. Her exploits in Authority led to movies such as Apology and Submission (the 2002 movie featuring Fabian Adgwe, Pedro Chima and Stella Damasus). In this movie, she plays the role of a mother, Lebechi, who makes it her life’s mission to manipulate her children and destroy their matrimonial homes. Also came Old School, the movie that earned her the name and acclaim of Mama G, and Tchidi Chikere’s Blood Sister (2003) starring Omotola Jalade-Ekehinde and Genevieve Nnaji.
WATCHING ‘MAMA G’
Kids who grew up watching ‘home videos’ in the early 2000s can attest to the popularity of Ozokwor. Her works have spanned over 100 movies since she made her debut in the 1990s. However, the most memorable watch for me is her 2002 movie, Old School. What made this movie a personal favourite at that time was how Ozokwor portrayed her character, Mama G, so naturally that it has sort of become her alias.
In Old School, Ozokwor absorbed her role as a troublesome mother and wife who is obsessed with local liquor and the display of false affluence at her favourite ‘joints’. Dubious as you can imagine, she tricked her way into moving away from her husband (Eddie, played by veteran actor, the late Pete Eneh) to the city with her second daughter who is married. In this movie, her obsession with partying knows no bounds: she frolics with her daughter’s gateman, gets home drunk and loud after consuming packs of beer and nkwobi; helps her son-in-law cover up his unfaithful ways; and challenges strangers to drinking and dancing contests at her favourite bars. Her love for music, especially highlife, shines through. She constantly gyrates to songs from her youth and claims that her love for enjoyment is due to the transient nature of life. In her words, ‘Rich people, six feet; poor people, six feet; Mama G, six feet. So when I’m still alive, I am going to enjoy myself.’
Regardless, her questionable character makes her the subject of mockery. Her embarrassing public display of heavy drinking, which makes her brutally honest, can be distasteful to those around her. On one occasion, she accuses her son-in-law’s bank manager and investor of being his mistress, on another, she insults and belittles his friend who visits the family home. Her ways were so disturbing that her daughter had to trick her into sending her back to the village. Mama G has no choice but to return to the village to her husband and his second wife. But her infuriating ways don’t end, she continues to terrorize everyone, including the villagers. Her first daughter had no choice but to trick her back to the city, on getting to her destination she discovers that her daughter has left the country, and she is left destitute in an unknown city. Still, in an uncomfortable situation, she uses her cunning ways to find her feet.
The fun gets even better with the introduction of the late Sam Loco Efe (who plays the role of Old Soldier), a man who lives with his married son in the city. Old Soldier claims to have fought in the World War, narrates a false encounter with Adolf Hitler, and extends sexual advances to the mother of his daughter-in-law. Old Soldier meets Mama G and brings her to his son’s home. Their combination and budding romantic relationship proves to be TV gold but chaotic enough to be sent back to the village.
Throughout Old School, Ozokwor’s brilliance as an actress shines. Her character was so well executed that it’s stuck in my memory and watching the entire movie again for the first time in many years brings back memories of an era in Nollywood that produced original comedies and commanding characters with long-lasting significance.
THE WOMAN, THE CHARACTER, THE LEGEND
Ozokwor’s acting career has produced hundreds of movies. Arguably, her most popular characters are the ones where she had to play the morally grey role, mostly as a mother and wife. Regardless, she has no issue being type-casted or portrayed in a bad light. She sees this as a job, though tasking, but one she must fulfil to her capabilities: ‘I do good movies too, but you know acting like an evil person is very difficult and that is the kind of movies people like to watch. People like to be real, sometimes they think that the person that is doing good things is faking it but when you show that evil aspect, that is where the action is,’ Ozokwor told Punch newspaper in 2019. She also tries to remove these roles from her actual persona: ‘Sometimes, I cry when I watch some of the movies I acted in. I am nothing like that and you can never see me where wicked acts are being perpetuated.’
Ultimately, Ozokwor is dedicated to her craft. This is evident in her longevity in an ever-changing Nollywood industry. Veteran Nigerian filmmaker and producer, Zeb Ejiro, testifies to her magnetic nature on screen. ‘When she appears on screen, no matter what you’re doing at that point in time, whether you are in your home or house or wherever, you’ll definitely stop and watch her.’
While she started her career in an era of low-budget/paying movies that had to be produced in a short time, she has also featured in more recent big-budget movies such as Chief Daddy. Still, Ozokwor is aware of the changes and growth in the industry. In a 2020 interview, Ozokwor stated that:
When we started, your hard work takes you anywhere. But at this time, it is even more difficult for people to give you the opportunity to show what you can do. Everything is all about money…In our own case, we didn’t bother about money. We didn’t know there was so much money in the industry.
Speaking on the legacy of Ozokwor, indie filmmaker, Becca Ashang, finds her passion and consistency admirable:
I don’t know where we can classify someone like Patience Ozokwor, because it’s beyond being a legend or veteran. When I see her, I see passion, I see consistency, I see talent. You could see the zeal, passion, and commitment in telling stories. I think every young filmmaker should learn from her. If you really want to make movies, you should do them for how they make you feel and not what you can get from them.
It is also worth noting the potential importance of her career to the new generation of Nigerian filmmakers who can consume and draw inspiration from her past and present works. Indeed, Ozokwor deserves all her flowers, and it is only right to start offering them while she’s still here⎈
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