It wasn’t a happy 2022 New Year’s Day for Netflix; or fans of Nollywood films.
The most popular streaming platform in the world bet big on “Chief Daddy 2: Going for Broke” as its New Year’s Day Nollywood tentpole, and it seemed safe. The original “Chief Daddy,” a 2018 comedy of manners revolving around a wealthy family dealing with the unexpected demise of their philandering patron, was a box office hit. Produced by EbonyLife films and directed by Niyi Akinmolayan, both synonymous with box office success, “Chief Daddy’s” all-star cast, and Yuletide release were catnip for audiences looking for escapism. So, it made sense that Netflix, still early in its Nigerian expedition, would go for low-hanging fruit to shore up local interest. And it did, outbidding theatrical distributors for the rights to stream the sequel exclusively.
But, technically and creatively, “Broke” didn’t make much sense. And two years into its “Africa experiment” (Nigeria and South Africa primarily), since “Queen Sono,” its first African original series, it’s time for Netflix to reassess.
Failing spectacularly at both drama and comedy, “Chief Daddy 2’s” barely coherent technique also ensured it would struggle to connect outside of a core Nollywood audience. Although even fans of the original expressed disappointment in the sequel, so much so that EbonyLife Films CEO Mo Abudu was forced to issue what was effectively a public apology some days after the film’s release. Taking to her Instagram page, Abudu published a video in which she stated: “I am aware of the mixed reactions to the release of Chief Daddy 2 on the 1st of January on Netflix. While some people enjoyed the film, others did not, and so I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge our Chief Daddy fans that felt some disappointment with the sequel.”
She continued: “When you express your disappointment with us, please know your voices are heard. We appreciate your constructive feedback. This way, my team and I can continuously improve ourselves so we can deliver the great quality productions you have come to expect from EbonyLife studios.”
Fast forward to June’s release of the ultra-vapid “Glamour Girls” — a reboot of a popular early Nollywood title about fast women in the big city, that would revive the conversation about the nature of Netflix’s curatorial strategy, or lack of, as far as Africa is concerned. Audiences would once again loudly register their displeasure with titles that appear to have been made with little thought or respect for the craft of filmmaking.
From “Chief Daddy 2” to “Glamour Girls,” and the Easter Original title, “The Man of God” in between, Netflix’s run of poorly received Nollywood titles points to a deeper problem for the streamer. Since commencing original content operations in Nigeria with the acquisition of Genevieve Nnaji’s “Lionheart” at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018, Netflix has wholeheartedly embraced the ethos of Nollywood — the commercially inclined, English-speaking wing of Nigeria’s diverse film industry. With glossy, high-profile publicity cycles, and engagement with the stars, Netflix has touted the idea that it is home to Nollywood. To be sure, in this world, representation is key and local context is everything. The films and series may lack polish, but they are made by the people, for the people. And so this venture provides a window for global audiences into what the local fuss is about.
All of this is in keeping with Netflix’s overall expansion strategy to deliver content in regions that can ultimately drive up subscriptions and keep them watching. In African territories, Netflix may have found perfect partners for its lowest-common-denominator model — films and series made on the cheap, that can easily fill content gaps. It seemed perfect for Nollywood filmmakers who are very experienced at making the most out of nothing and are incredibly grateful for the injection of resources that a partner like Netflix provides. It is a similar situation across much of the continent.
Netflix’s overall Africa approach means mirroring local box office trends. And box office as a measure of popularity makes sense, but in African countries, movie theaters have not been as influential or democratic as they are around the world. There are simply not enough of them, and where they exist means that they often cater to a specific demographic. In Nigeria, the same players who oversaw the homogenization of the local box office with glitzy, poorly defined stories of the one-percenters are now scrambling to define the landscape of Nigerian cinema and television for an increasingly global audience.
In South Africa, Netflix’s other significant African market, it’s a similar picture as Netflix appears to be just as committed to creating a content library that reflects the spirit of the local cinema. This often translates to heavy-handed reflections of the country’s apartheid past and socio-cultural present.
Its 2022 South African output has included the release of the violent “Amandla,” a bleak tale of two brothers caught up in the brutal chokehold of the apartheid system. Mandla Dube’s slick “Silverton Siege” is a competent actioner — based on real-life events of course — that is almost derailed by unconvincing racial and political commentary. And the latest drama, “Jewel,” situates a story of same-sex attraction at the site of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre.
For counter-programming, Netflix looks to the South African box office to commission middling sequels to popular titles. This strategy has produced the joke-an-hour tedium of “Trippin’ with the Kandasamys”(2021), and the perfectly average “Happiness Ever After” (2021), the follow-up to the surprise 2016 hit, “Happiness is a Four-Letter Word.”
Output on the television side has been more assured for unsurprising reasons. South Africa boasts the most developed television market on the continent, as well as the most advanced television ratings system. Years of investment in the national broadcasting network have created a groundswell of best-in-class creatives who can compete anywhere in the world. This excellence has even been exported to Nigeria with South African talent tapped to help script “Blood Sisters,” the streamer’s first Nigerian original series. Directed by the high-profile duo of Biyi Bandele and Kenneth Gyang, “Blood Sisters is a sleek, supremely entertaining four-part road thriller about two best friends on the run.
And with this local South African talent, Netflix has launched more shows in that country than anywhere else on the continent. It began with the ambitious, country-hopping “Queen Sono” (2020), created by Kagiso Lediga, starring Pearl Thusi as an intelligence operative with mommy issues. Now in its second season, “Blood & Water” has a central mystery that enlivens the basic teen, coming-of-age genre. And who can resist the ridiculous antics of the Sellos and the Twalas in the two installments of the “How to Ruin Christmas” franchise, also in its second season?
To be sure, the South African series do have their own share of didacticism. “Queen Sono” includes an entire sub-plot that takes shots at former president Jacob Zuma and the state capture scandal that derailed his presidency. This year’s “Savage Beauty” taps into a national dialogue about colorism and the complicity of the cosmetic industries in creating impossible beauty standards. But unlike the movies, these series manage to keep the preachiness secondary to the stories they are telling.
Netflix boasts about producing content for Africa with global appeal, but since the streamer began investing in Originals on the continent, “Africa” has meant Nigeria and South Africa primarily. This is about to change with the launch of “Country Queen,” Kenya’s first Netflix Original property, and the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the country to shore up production capacity. With “Country Queen,” Netflix is relying on a familiar strategy. The melodrama, which stars Melissa Kiplagat as a successful event planner, is committed to reflecting the realities of Kenyans, the streamer says. This means tackling local socially relevant themes like land grabs, corporate bullying, and gender dynamics.
There is merit to the locality of Netflix’s approach, capturing the zeitgeist of each country, and reflecting the industries in which they operate. And the company’s Africa interests may be happening at just the right moment in the sub-Saharan continent’s onscreen evolution. It used to be that the African film and television content exposed to global audiences — typically produced by non-Africans — was of a certain “single story” bent: poverty, death, disease, trauma. The work of changing this narrative, shifting to more tempered and realistic depictions of life on the continent, was certainly not pioneered by Netflix, but by local filmmakers working in their respective regions.
With access to over 200 million subscribers across the globe at its peak, Netflix does represent perhaps the largest audience to roll out these corrective narratives to. However, by leaning into ongoing local efforts in “rebranding” Africa, Netflix may now be at the risk of overcompensating with glamourous narratives that are ultimately removed from normal realities.
Nowhere has this been more acute than with the streamer’s African entry into the world of reality television. “Young, Famous & African” is an amusing exercise in depicting alternative narratives of life on the continent. A posse of rich and famous celebrities gather in one of the wealthiest corners of Johannesburg to make connections and, as is typical with this particular television genre, argue and fight. The show comes across as a shallow response to already shallow American celebrations of glamour and celebrity as seen in the “Real Housewives” franchise, for example. “Young, Famous & African” may be ridiculously entertaining, but it has so little to say beyond “Oh look, we have expensive things too!”
Netflix’s apparent privileging of the box office and star power in decision-making may be good for business, but it’s too early to take such a firm stand; especially as streaming continues to reshape the landscape. The seeming unwillingness to be adventurous or deepen curation leaves out an entire class of independent filmmakers creating some of the most compelling work outside the mainstream. It also does little for inclusivity or building diverse audiences.
In the United States, for instance, the Oscars and Emmys are just as important as box office success, and Netflix’s strategy has been to pursue both. In its Africa strategy so far, there’s hardly been any talk about awards or festival strategy, and critically acclaimed independent films offering more nuanced portrayals of contemporary life are often ignored in favor of more heavy-handed, didactic dramas like “Amandla,” or vapid comedies like “Chief Daddy.”
There is so much more to being African than traumatic depictions or silly aspirational fluff. And Netflix’s Original programming investment on the continent should reflect that as well.
The Top 5 Netflix Original African series:
5. “Senzo: Murder of a Soccer Star”
4. “Queen Sono”
3. “Young, Famous & African”
2. “Savage Beauty”
1. “How to Ruin Christmas”
The Top 5 Netflix Original African films”:
4. The Boy who Harnessed the Wind
4. Catching Feelings
3. My Octopus Teacher