I came across a Facebook user’s post yesterday where he asked people what the best series and movies they watched this year are. Almost all the series and movies mentioned are from Hollywood. This got me thinking. There’s been a great improvement in Nollywood’s cinematography in recent times, but something key still seems to be missing. This key thing is why Nollywood has yet to capture the Nigerian audience.
Except for a few outliers, how many Nollywood movies/series can make for a good discussion about character study, motifs, and themes? Many filmmakers argue that Nigerians only enjoy comical movies, but the rise of Layi Wasabi proves that Nigerians want more than just laughter.
There used to be a time when our favourite artists and songs were American, but the music industry turned this around. Talents eclipsed with quality of production and now we have the whole world dancing to Afrobeats. Nigerians might want to laugh, but they want something deeper.
I’m rewatching ‘Mad Men.’ There’s this episode in season 2 titled ‘Maidenform’. In this episode, Sterling Cooper is running a campaign for Playtex, a lingerie brand. The creatives, all men, came up with an idea, ‘two sides of a woman’. The idea typifies women into either a Marilyn Monroe or a Jackie Kennedy — a simplistic, glib perception of women through the male gaze. Think of the contrast between Michelle Obama and, say, Tiwa Savage, and you’ll understand what they’re implying.
The only woman on the team, Peggy Olsen, who had been excluded from the brainstorming session at a boys’ night out, objects to this. Not all women see themselves as Marilyn or Jackie, she says. The guys disagree. One even quips that lingerie is for men. She asks the guys which woman they think she is, Marilyn or Jackie. Peggy could only be compared to Gertrude Stein, a writer. Still, they proceed with this idea.
So, keep this idea of duality and perception in mind as I tell you about another character in the series, Don Draper.
Don is a self-made man. He has a beautiful wife, dominates other men with his creativity in the boardroom and menacingly removes their hats inside lifts. He appears confident and does all he can to portray himself as a responsible family man. But Don is also an army deserter. He’s taken his dead captain’s identity. His real name is Dick Whitman. He’s a liar. And worse, an adulterer.
In every scene, you see his struggle between two selves: one that promoted Peggy Olsen to junior copywriter, a big deal for a woman in the 1960s; and another Don who prefers that his wife remains a housewife.
At a party, army veterans are asked to stand for recognition. Don does, but in that moment you see his shoulders drop. His daughter looks up admiringly, applauding her hero father. But he knows it’s a lie.
He runs out of the party into the arms of Bonnie, another woman.
At the hotel, he tells Bobbie not to speak as he touches her. But she talks anyway, letting it slip that all the professional women he’s slept with talk about him. This unsettles him. He’s been unravelled. And worse, he’s been pigeonholed by women the same way he and other men typecast women. He’s a public dick.
By now, the theme has become clear — perception, image, and duality. Who we are to others versus who we are inside. How others see us and how we see ourselves through the eyes of people.
Like most Hollywood series, the beauty of this series is how well it’s written: round characters with rich backstories and clear motivations; period-accurate settings, including clothes, reference to arts, news, and conventions of the period; the brilliant acting … you mention it. Each episode has themes and motifs, and you can see how well the script and character interpretation bring them alive. They draw you into their world and you forget that it’s acting. You can psychoanalyse characters like Don Draper, Tommy Shelby and Walter White and develop different theories and interpretations.
You can hardly do this with Nollywood movies. In a recent release, there’s a flat TV in a movie set in the 1960s. And the performance of the actors keeps reminding you that they’re acting. The storylines not only need you to suspend disbelief, but you also have to suspend intelligence as well.
In the last scene of ‘Maidenform’, Don’s daughter enters the bathroom as he shaves. “I won’t talk, so you won’t cut yourself,” she says. Those innocent words from his daughter rattle him. They remind him of Bonnie at the hotel; if he’s forgotten or trying to deny it, they remind him what a piece of garbage he is — a sentiment Bonnie’s husband would eventually spit at his face in the next episode.
The scene fades. The camera pans out and we see Don crestfallen on the toilet seat. A split appears as he looks at himself in the door mirror: two different selves — the hero in the eyes of his daughter and the army deserter. The brilliance of the directing is matched with the moving expression of the actor. Show, don’t tell in practice.
Yes, Nollywood has a funding problem. But the reason we’re yet to make series and films that are not just entertaining but intellectually stimulating, series that get the tiny details right, isn’t funding.