Is Nollywood the Answer to Black Cinema?

April 10, 2012  |  

So I am a bit of a cinephile. What’s that you ask?

Well according to Wiki, I am a person who has “a passionate interest in cinema.” In other words, I not only like watching films but I also like dissecting the plot elements and the cinematography.  But occasionally I do…ahem…lower my high cinematic principles and indulge in the trivial and lowly.

I will admit to liking the SyFy network Mega Dinosaur versus Giant Crocodile movies of the week.  And yes, I have tuned in to once or twice, okay several times for one of those Black gospel plays starring Vivica Fox or Ralph Tresvant or some other d-list celebrities.  I admit that I really enjoy the rom-coms about the successful female journalist/bookstore owner/fashion magazine intern falling for the hot yet womanizing/self-absorbed/underemployed male, who doesn’t know that he is in love with the protagonist until a misunderstanding/breakup/seeing her without her eyeglasses and in a beautiful dress for the first time forces him to realize that he loves her too.

Oh did I mention that I absolutely love – with a capital “L” – those direct to video movies from Nigeria? Nollywood? Are you serious? Yes, very.

Yes I know, the clumsy and very low budget cinematography, almost as if it was filmed on a flip camera, the shoddy editing which looks like it was done on Windows Move Maker and the overly dramatic and exaggerated acting and facial expressions is enough to warrant me to lose whatever credibility I have as a person who claims to have discerning taste, especially in films. And while I might never be accused of being next the Siskel and Ebert, I do know what entertains me. And there is nothing better than curling up in a blanket on the couch with a bowl of popcorn, watching the tantalizing tomfoolery that is Nollywood films.

If you never seen a Nollywood production, imagine a BET movie of the week meets a Daytime soap opera – American, Spanish or otherwise. I’m talking about intrigue, plot twists, bad singing, car chases, gangsters, casual sex and juju, wrapped up into four of the most entertaining hours you will ever spend in front of the television. Yes, I said four hours because that is the average length of a Nollywood production. So grab plenty of popcorn because you are going to be there for a while.

Over the weekend, I found a YouTube channel called Nollywood Love, which host dozens of fairly recent films, mostly English-language films, from Nigeria.  I started on late Friday night watching a movie called Beyonce and Rihanna,” a film about two singing rivals fighting each other over a chance at stardom – and a dude name Jay. You couldn’t make this up if you tried; however Nollywood can and did.

By Sunday morning I realized that I had spent the entire Easter Holiday weekend on films like African Queen, BlackBerry Babes, the Return of BlackBerry Babes, Jenifa, White Hunters and my personal favorite: The Return of White Hunters, a comedy about gold diggers on the hunt for white husbands, which features probably the most political incorrect theme songs ever made in history.

While the films might be classified as amateurish at best, these Nigerian directors have managed to take only a few thousand dollars, a digital camera, and a couple of local actresses and turn it into a film industry worth an estimated $236 million. In fact, Nigeria has the world’s second-largest film industry second only to Bollywood (India’s film industry). Yes that’s right, Nollywood produces more films than Hollywood in a single year. And with audiences growing beyond the continent of Africa into places like Europe, the Caribbean and the United States, the potential for growth might be enough to push Nollywood to the number one spot in terms of content creation.

Earlier this week The New York based hedge fund group Tiger Global, who is also an early investor in Facebook, has announced that it is investing in iROKO TV, a Nigerian version of Netflix, which has the largest licensee of Nollywood movies, with more than 3,000 titles in its library. It is YouTube’s largest African partner contributing content under its Nollywood Love account. While quality of film remains a concern, not everything coming out of Nollywood is low budget. Recently the New York Times profiled the Nigerian film industry and focused on a film called “The Figurine,” which they describe as an “aesthetic leap,” from what we normally associate with Nollywood films. In fact, critics have praised the film, which actually made it to theaters and is said to hold its own on the international arena of quality filmmaking.

While it is too early in Nollywood film history to declare the second coming of an Ousmane Sembene-type filmmaker coming out of Nigeria, the stories being produced right now provide the type of escapism from the heavier African tales of war and famine we regularly see of Hollywood. This ability to portray a more human and universal image of folks with dark skin – regardless of criticism over quality – might mean that the Black Hollywood that we longed to see in America has already been created and flourishing in the motherland.

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