Like many other twenty-something year olds born in the late nineties in anglophone West Africa, I grew up on and loved Nollywood cinema. The outrageous storylines of infidelity, young people battling odds to find financial success, evil in-laws and even more evil village chiefs, brought my family together every night after school and work. I don’t know anyone who did not rightfully fall in love with Genevieve Nnaji after the Sharon Stone franchise (2002), and her range as an actress remained formidable in her years as a Nollywood starlet. Her on screen career went quiet for a few years, the silence punctuated by her role in the film Road to Yesterday, available on Netflix. Lionheart (2018) is Nnaji’s newest on screen performance and is, even more excitingly, her directorial debut. Nnaji stan as I am, I could not wait to see it.
For Netflix viewers who are unfamiliar with Nollywood cinema, the film provides an easy introduction to the world of Nigerian filmmaking. The film is set in Enugu in Southeastern Nigeria, and is centered on a financial crisis faced by Lionheart, a local transportation company. In the first scenes of the film we are introduced to Chief Obiagu (Pete Edochie) who is the CEO of Lionheart, and Adaeze his daughter (Nnaji) who is the Logistics Director of the company. Following a non-fatal heart attack, Chief Obiagu appoints his younger brother Godswill (Nkem Owoh) to take the position of acting CEO much to Adaeze’s disappointment.
The film follows how, working together, Adaeze and her uncle, must devise means to save the company from imminent bankruptcy after a risky investment fails to pay off. The film is insistent on its lesson of family values and hard work, themes which make it a comfortable viewing experience for a wide variety of audiences. The cinematics are quite beautiful– the film is color graded in a soft dark golden teal hue, and barring a few awkward close ups, the shots move very smoothly. It incorporates stunning landscape shots of Enugu, which I think manage to avoid the Africa-as-empty-grassland trope, instead portraying a really beautiful landscape.
The story is one of a family travailing through difficulty, of rising above unethical business practices, navigating ethnic tensions, and Nigeria’s economic crises, but the quality it seems most invested in is restraint. This permeates the script, the acting, and the cinematics. While this is the story of a failing company with a very short deadline within which to redeem itself, there is no sense of urgency throughout the film (even though the dark tone of the colors gives the sense that something sinister is lurking). The scenes move by languidly, the dialogue is proper and measured, and even when the film touches on important social issues such as the difficulties women face in the corporate world or tenuous ethnic relations, it does so with a frustrating degree of propriety. The issues arise, characters give an elegant response or completely brush them aside, and the plot moves on.
In this way, the film does more in what it does not expressly address, and its silences are where the interesting questions are raised. Lionheart was largely publicized as a Nigerian movie, but the sense of Igbo nationhood is prevalent- primarily through the language of the film, but also in scenes where characters make reference to their Igbo identity as the basis for kinship. The film does not expressly or directly address the relationship between Igbo-ness and Nigerian-ness, which given Nigeria’s history, fills the silences with so many questions. Language choices and the place of language in navigating ethnic/national relations becomes even more interesting in the final scenes of the film, when Chief Obiagu and Alhaji Maikano bond over Chief Obiagu’s ability to speak Hausa. The silence continues with other social issues as well. In an earlier scene when Adaeze expresses her fear that her father did not appoint her CEO because she is a woman, her mother chastises her and that conversation ends there. When a male bank official spends more time staring at Adaeze’s chest than listening to her proposal, Godswill covers her with a paper, and that conversation ends there.
Lionheart all in all is a good film- I would not stop anyone from seeing it. It does, however, suffer from a leaning towards the safe which ultimately leaves the film somewhat flat, with the characters underdeveloped. The humor sprinkled throughout the film keeps it light and interesting, and the acting is certainly believable. It is the kind of film one would watch with family on a lazy Sunday afternoon, reveling in its quietness.
Written by: Amoafoa
IMAGE CREDIT: TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL