Oscars: Three Major Nollywood Films Reach into the Past to Comment on the Present. But What Are They Really Saying?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences today announced shortlists in 10 categories for the 95th Academy Awards, including International Feature Film. Fifteen films will advance to the next round of voting. Films from 92 countries and regions were eligible in the category. Nigeria’s Oscar Selection Committee considered three Yoruba-language submissions: “Aníkúlápó,” “Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman,” and “King of Thieves.” However, a majority of the committee voted against all three films. Following are analyses of all three.

When the committee members tasked with selecting Nigeria’s submission for the international film category at the Oscars assembled, they were presented with an interesting shortlist to pick from. On paper at least, things looked promising: three period epics — “King of Thieves,” “Aníkúlápó,” and “Ẹlẹṣin Ọba: The King’s Horseman” — set in the southwestern part of the country and made predominantly in the Yoruba Language. One of them, “King of Thieves” had been on wide release already, and had emerged a surprise box office success, taking in over 300 million Naira in receipts. This run, alongside Hollywood titles like the “Doctor Strange” sequel, kept theaters in business during the first half of the year. The other two would go directly to streaming as Netflix Original properties. At least one of them would emerge a bonafide hit. 

Kunle Afolayan’s “Aníkúlápó,” a winding saga of greed and human folly set in 17th century old Oyo kingdom was, for a spell, the most viewed non-English language film globally on Netflix.

The arrival of “Ẹlẹṣin Ọba: The King’s Horseman” – helmed by the late Biyi Bandele – was more muted. But at least, the big screen adaptation of “Death and the King’s Horseman,” the venerated play by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. scored some bragging rights as it landed a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The period drama about a fated horseman who fails to do his duty by his people, tipping the cosmic universe into chaos, was mostly ignored at TIFF but that’s par for the course in a festival known for an overabundance of options.

Much has already been reported on the box office overperformance of “King of Thieves,” but not enough on how the film – directed by the duo of Adebayo Tijani and Tope Adebayo — managed such an impact on the culture. A lot of it was familiarity. The film’s protagonist, Agesinkole, played with theatrical ebullience by Femi Adebayo, is based on a mythical figure known among the Yorubas to be the spirit representation of trickery or robbery. “King of Thieves” offers a fictional interpretation of how this myth came to be, humanizing Adebayo’s Agesinkole as a traumatized figure seeking out revenge only after being terribly wronged.

“King of Thieves” embraces oral storytelling and the broad theatrics of Yoruba Nollywood, and populates the cast with mainstream stars like Odunlade Adekola and Toyin Abraham, all the easier to manage a crossover. The production values are choppy, with dodgy CGI – but even the Marvel films haven’t figured this out either. But everyone involved is clearly making an effort. That passion comes through onscreen, and the resulting film is quite enjoyable as a piece of entertainment. It is a film that knows its audience, understands its limitations, and plays to its strengths.

With the fictional village of Ajeromi where the events are set, “King of Thieves” considers institutional history and collective memory. Drawing real-world parallels would probably be reaching but it isn’t hard to see how the filmmakers are trying to hold its fictional society accountable for the sins of the past, something the Nigerian project has repeatedly failed to do. The film doesn’t extend this same sense of accountability to its protagonist who commissions murder and pillage against his people and then has the audacity to deliver moral lessons at the end of the day.

This same unwillingness to grapple conclusively with history, beyond the broadest of strokes also befalls “Aníkúlápó,” Kunle Afolayan’s period epic starring Kunle Remi as Saro, a 17th-century wanderer who the people of Oyo welcome until he abuses their trust. In the same vein as “King of Thieves,” Aníkúlápó” also embraces mythical elements, but is all dressed up with nowhere to go. The narrative is sprawling, with a characteristically undisciplined Afolayan stretching a leaden first half that has an unclear connection with the second.

Where the pacing of “King of Thieves” is brisk and the action forward charging, “Aníkúlápó” is sluggish and the filmmaking not interesting enough to compensate. It plays like multiple episodes of a television series stitched together.

Both films put plenty of effort into bringing their respective eras to life. Striking observations include the grandeur of the costumes, the folkloric music, and the accents. Don’t forget depictions of commerce, labor, royalty, spirituality, and the sense of community.

The sociopolitical realities of the past are also alluded to. “Aníkúlápó” leans forward with an interesting introduction of Awarun, an empowered woman played by Sola Sobowale, but has no idea how to fit this character properly into the plot or even within the larger cultural context. Then there is the protagonist’s sexual assault of a woman in his charge which is played purely as a plot beat with no time taken to truly grapple with what this means for the characters and how it might complicate their lives.

Discussions of complicity in the transatlantic slave trade are perfunctory and disappear just as soon as they are mentioned.

The male gaze dominates the telling of these stories, but this is no excuse for the seeming inability or unwillingness to engage constructively and sensitively with the toughest parts of history.

“Ẹlẹṣin Ọba” which might have benefited the most from an updating of Soyinka’s classic text to reflect contemporary realities, makes a puzzling decision to reproduce the play as is. Bandele’s main creative input is a translation of key portions of the dialogue to Yoruba, but even this is not as provocative as it should be because the writing, which works well on the stage, is clunky and screeching on screen. 

Still, “Ẹlẹṣin Ọba” appears to be the strongest – and most disciplined – of the three films. But this isn’t saying much considering it has so many self-inflicted obstacles preventing it from working as a stand-alone piece. The actors dispatch their line reads with respect for Soyinka’s text but that is all they appear to be doing: reading lines, forcefully. The complexities of comprehension, internalization, and expression that go into the actor’s process feel absent here. And a lot of it is because Bandele isn’t adequately supporting his cast.

Shaffy Bello for instance is fully present as Iyaloja, the Ẹlẹṣin’s unlikely conscience. But the film leaves her stranded as a vessel for spewing some fine monologues. Would it not be more interesting if her complicity in maintaining patriarchal structures of power was acknowledged or even wrestled with?

Soyinka famously declared that the play should not be interpreted as a simplistic clash of cultures, but as a more complex celebration of the linkages between the physical and the otherworld especially as it concerns Yoruba tragedy. “Ẹlẹṣin Ọba” does not quite establish visually why this connection is important.

More challenging – but not impossible – to express would be a critical query into Soyinka’s fourth stage theory. And with it, the utility in ensuring harmony between living, dead and unborn worlds only through the ritualized sacrifice of one person. The play accepts this belief wholeheartedly. But does the film have to, as well?

In a post-“Black Panther” film economy, it is expected that the success of “King of Thieves” and “Brotherhood,” the crime thriller that followed in its money-minting wake, will demonstrate an appetite for counter-programming at the box office. This might encourage filmmakers and cinema programmers to look outside of the obvious broad comedies starring the latest internet flavor of the month while searching for hits. 

Afolayan has confirmed that “Aníkúlápó” is coming back, this time as a spinoff television series – perhaps a more suitable format for the material, not to mention his style. Maybe “Ẹlẹṣin Ọba” will spur more adaptations from literary source material; maybe it won’t. While the film is far from a creative success and has had no immediate cultural imprint to speak of, it will, at least, be remembered as the last feature from director Biyi Bandele who died unexpectedly in August.

The Nigerian Oscars selection committee – in their wisdom or hubris – might have decided against putting any of these films forward. But it is also clear that these films – like much of Nollywood’s immense output – were also not made primarily with the Oscars in mind and are likely to find significance elsewhere. Nollywood’s audience has always been home anyway.