Lionheart — Nollywood through a social change lens
Nollywood and social change (women’s rights, human rights, LGBT rights, social and income inequality et cetera) are two things that I am passionate and vocal about. I have written reviews and recommendations of Nigerian films for blogs in the past and I found that very fulfilling. However, I decided last year that I wanted to do more than just write reviews — I wanted to give social commentary on these films and talk about what they were doing right or wrong in this regard. I decided I was going to take some time during the Christmas/New Year break to write my first post and get my feet wet. Starting off with Lionheart is quite an ambitious choice, however, this is the film that has appealed to me the most recently. I am looking forward to writing more of these, receiving feedback, and creating dialogue around these stories.
I first saw Lionheart in September at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and it was $30 well-spent (as a graduate student who does not work, understand that this is a lot of money). I could not attend the screening that the director, Genevieve Nnaji, attended as that session sold out quickly, but I was thrilled to see the film regardless.
With Lionheart, it was nice to see a young unmarried female lead whose story is not about how she embarks on a search for “the one” or how, through a series of events, she falls in love with a man she did not fancy at first. It is also not a story about a woman who exhausts herself to keep her family together or one who merely acts as an extension of the men in the film. We see a character who is clearly her own person — the film is about her. It requires effort to do this in an industry where films are rarely ever about women if it does not have to do with love and romance. That being said though, no film with a strong female lead is complete without some male love interest regardless of how progressive it appears to be. Hence, I was not surprised when the film hinted at the possibility of romance between the protagonist, Adaeze, and her business partner, Hamza Maikano. Nevertheless, I was impressed (and relieved) that their potential relationship was not front and center of the entire film. In fact, I left the theatre wondering if anything was going to blossom between the two and if Adaeze was at all interested in Hamza beyond the initial delight of meeting someone new. I appreciated the subtlety of everything.
The film does well to show one of the issues Nigerian women face in doing business, where our bodies are negotiated for and often become part of the deal. A year and a half ago, I was in Lagos for the holidays working on a public health initiative which I had received a grant for. Executing the initiative saw me doing business with a supplier, a man, who came by my parents’ house to drop off some goods I had requested. The day ended with this man making advances at me and offering to supply more product at a lower price than we had discussed if I accepted his advances. I had conducted myself in a professional manner throughout — it was purely a business meeting — and so his actions took me by surprise and made me uncomfortable. This is the reality for women in a society where we are commodity and men hold the key to opportunities and resources. Lionheart does well enough to not leave this out.
One thing that stood out to me negatively in this film was the level of opulence displayed by the Obiagwu’s. Not only did the family live in a large mansion characterized by large winding staircases and tall bronze columns and mini-statues, their compound contained swimming pools and multiple living quarters. Adaeze even had her driver follow her in her SUV during her morning runs. Such level and display of wealth is not uncommon for rich Nigerian families. However, in a state such as Enugu where apparently, 49.4 percent of households are classified as “poor” and “very poor”, no one family should have that much wealth. You can argue — and I’ve seen many Nigerians argue this point on the Internet often — that their wealth is a result of hard work and smart decisions, but recognize that such wealth, especially in Nigeria, often comes at the expense of other people — nepotism, paying subordinates low wages — or through circumventing the law — kickbacks, contracts awarded in exchange for favors, and connections in government. The film does not delve into details of how Ernest Obiagwu built Lionheart, but I think the level of luxury displayed by this family, and by extension wealthy Nigerian families, is worth commenting on and thinking about.
There are two scenes that I wish were written better. The first is when Uncle Godswill and Adaeze go to request for a loan from one of the banks and the banker ogles at Adaeze and proceeds to stare at her chest. Uncle Godswill, in typical pseudo-protective male fashion covers his niece’s chest with his newspaper. We often talk about the importance of putting the responsibility of preventing harassment on harassers and not the harassed (usually women). Albeit a comedic scene, the writers had the opportunity to correct how we are socialized to react to harassment and failed to do so. The second is when Adaeze’s mother chastises Adaeze when the latter asserts that had Obiora (Adaeze’s brother) been the one running the family business, their father would have confidently put him in charge and not waited for their uncle. I did not find Adaeze’s assertion to be improper. We see this often with Igbo families where sons are revered and respected over daughters and handed opportunities even when they are less qualified. It serves no one for the film to act as if this bias does not exist when they could have instead taken time to address it.
Finally, Igbo pride. Lionheart is unapologetically Igbo. From the language, the scenery and the music, to the things the characters said in jest to each other, the salutations, and the scene at the dining table, my heart swelled with pride at how much Igbo goodness this film contained. All these are things to be proud of in a time where outside the South-East, “Igbo-ness” is not exactly celebrated. I know how many times I have gotten a look from my peers when I mention that Phyno is one of my favorite musicians because apparently, liking Phyno is not very cool. Last weekend, I was at a club in downtown Toronto with acquaintances and the DJ had done well to play a couple of Nigerian songs which we all danced to happily. A Flavour song came on and one of the young men I was with yelled “what the fuck is that?” over the music. Popular culture in Nigeria is dominated by South-Western influence and anything that falls short of that often fails to garner respect and popularity. This is why I am extremely appreciative of the representation this film offers.
While Lionheart may not have been written to make any overt statements on social issues, it agreeably addresses two or three that were central to the story. The film is currently showing on Netflix — watch it if you haven’t already and let me know what you think.