Hey VICE! Put some respeck on Nollywood’s name

Still from promo for Vice on HBO.

Though VICE has, in some ways, improved its Africa coverage — see, for instance, its reporting on the political crises in the Central African Republic —it continues to offer some familiar, adventurist, Tarzanist tricks. Think of the infamous “cannibals”-in-Liberia episode, which prompted the late New York Times reporter David Carr to pillory VICE executives for their exoticizing methods. Those affiliated with VICE appear to have learned little from Carr’s blistering critique. 

Among the worst offenders is its correspondent Thomas Morton.

Take VICE’s recent television segment on Nollywood — the second half of an episode that HBO first broadcast in April, and that remains available through HBO’s streaming services. Having presented filmmaking in Uganda as a wild jaunt reflective merely of a devil-may-care masculinism (not the first time VICE employed this approach in its coverage of the country), the company has now, through Morton, turned to Nigeria as a further source of wonder for white correspondents and, it is strongly and repeatedly implied, for white audiences (whom the segment’s white host addresses with a conspiratorial “you”). Thus if “you” don’t recognize the names Genevieve Nnaji and Ramsey Nouah, then “you” must not be African. (For the uninitiated: They are Nollywood stars — Ed.)

Introducing the segment, VICE CEO Shane Smith (incidentally, he reported the Liberia cannibal episode) offers a strikingly dubious assertion: “For nearly 100 years, Hollywood has essentially had a monopoly on the movie business.” This is not an auspicious beginning, relying as it does upon a number of galling generalizations — the stuff of a film historian’s nightmares. But it also portends the episode’s presentation of a broadly defined, hegemonic Hollywood as the center of global media production — the “norm” against which all filmmakers are necessarily judged.

No mention is made of cinematic traditions — including nontheatrical distribution — that have long flourished irrespective of Hollywood’s efforts, or that have actively contested the industry’s export power through quota systems and other regulatory mechanisms. Nor is any mention made of the multiple film industries that operate in Nigeria alone. Thus we have, once again, the erroneous assertion that Nollywood is the Nigerian national film industry, rather than a geographically and even ethnically specific enterprise that is, in fundamental ways, unrelated to its counterparts in the north — including the Hausa-language film industry dubbed “Kannywood.” Rooted in the Islamicate cultures of Kano and Kaduna, Kannywood is, as usual, entirely effaced through VICE’s emphasis on Nollywood. (A casual nod to the diversity of filmmaking practices in Nigeria, at the very least, would have been nice.)

A familiar fallacy — that, because Nollywood equals Nigeria, there are no alternatives in this allegedly totalized and totalizing country — leads to the misplaced assertion that Nollywood is “the second biggest ‘-ollywood’ in the world, after Bollywood.” That VICE is still peddling a 2009 UNESCO report that has long since been discredited by scholars — not to mention complicated beyond recognition by industrial practices in the intervening years — is hardly surprising. And yet Morton, the segment’s host, repeatedly mispronounces “Lagos” as only an American can, initially reporting from the Lagos Civic Center premiere of Pascal Atuma’s Bloodlines (2014).

Proceeding to identify Nollywood’s emergence with the 1992 production of Living in Bondage, Morton makes at least two rookie mistakes that speak to the broader problems with VICE’s take on Nollywood: not only does he fail to mention either the film’s producer, Kenneth Nnebue, or its director, Chris Obi Rapu — a courtesy that would surely have been extended to any Hollywood filmmaker — but he also further obscures the men’s influential achievement by suggesting that one can only discern the conditions of the film’s production through recourse to “legend”: Living in Bondage was “made, according to legend, by an electronics merchant.” Simply put, that is like saying that Citizen Kane was made, according to legend, by a former theater director. Suggesting that “legend” — that national-cultural hearsay — is required to explicate the origins of Nollywood is patently offensive. It ignores the growing number of carefully researched scholarly accounts of Nollywood while perpetuating the racist myth of Africa as a “dark continent” where basic facts prove stubbornly elusive and altogether impossible to “prove.”

That Nollywood is extensively consumed in the diaspora is implicitly denied in the episode, which claims that the industry’s reach is merely “Africa-wide.” Things get considerably worse, however, as Morton decides to try his hand at acting. “With dreams of making it as a genuine Nollywood movie star, I set out for Alaba,” he declares with colonialist panache. Since “there are auditions for numerous Nollywood films every day,” he expects to book a job, even though he is careful to avoid those who “charge a dubious audition fee.”

“You’d think that there’d basically be roles for just about everybody,” Morton proclaims. What he doesn’t mention is that open-call auditions, though numerous, are typically only for small roles and are further conditioned by Nollywood’s sophisticated star system as well as by the Actors Guild of Nigeria (formerly operating out of the National Theatre and now dispersed in offices throughout the country). In her valuable book Nollywood Central, Jade L. Miller details the various guilds and trade organizations that structure Nollywood, offering an important counterpoint to the sort of portrayal that VICE provides.

There is a telling moment when Morton, ensconced in his spacious hotel room, puts up Nollywood posters and announces, in voice-over, “I’ve never given much thought to acting. I think that getting into Hollywood just always seemed off-limits. But maybe I’ll have a shot [in Nollywood]. I can be, if not the Elijah Wood of Nigeria, maybe it’s Pat Morita.”

Morton’s monologue thus perpetuates a condescending perception of Nollywood as Hollywood’s “lesser,” more “accessible” African counterpart — a lowly industry that even someone with no experience can breezily “infiltrate.” If Morton thinks that it’s easy to “break into” Nollywood as an actor, he would do well to read any number of biographical accounts of the industry’s top stars, the vast majority of whom toiled for years, in a dizzying number of capacities, before becoming household names. What’s more, in her remarkable 2012 memoir Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, the writer Noo Saro-Wiwa debunks the fanciful, tempting notion that Nollywood is somehow able to accommodate anyone who makes it to Lagos. But it is Morton’s reference to Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, the Oscar-nominated star of John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid (1984), that is perhaps most instructive. For if Morton believes, however ironically, that he can “be” Pat Morita, he also, apparently, believes that he can “be” Nigerian — at least in an audition in which, wearing fur and wielding a cow’s skull, he rants and raves, spouting “African” gibberish in a manner that would make even Rachel Dolezal’s jaw drop. 

Morton seems eager to emphasize the “excessive” style of Nollywood acting (perhaps in an effort to excuse his own histrionics). Comparing it to Kabuki theater (!), he complains that he’s accustomed to the more “natural” acting that, in his inescapably ethnocentric view, is characteristic of American movies. It falls to the accomplished Nigerian actor Gregory Ojefua to calmly explain to Morton that, quite simply, what appears “abnormal” to him may appear “normal” to someone else — and that Hollywood acting is as stylized, in its own ways, as Nollywood acting (which, in any case, can seem hyperrealist from a Nigerian perspective). Like Ojefua, the Nigerian filmmakers Cyril Jackson and Victor Okpala manage to put Morton in his place — Jackson by briskly rejecting his pathetic audition, and Okpala by asking him to try out for the role of “terrorist” (a request that forces Morton to scrunch his face in comic disbelief — a cute, bespectacled, boat-shoed white boy as a deadly terrorist!). Portraying a man who comes to confront the terrorist, one Nigerian actor delivers a line that could well apply to Morton himself, and to the entire VICE enterprise: “You think you can come to this country and destabilize everything?!”

Morton’s next stop is an audition for the legendary filmmaker Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, who reluctantly hires the American hipster to portray a Catholic priest in his film Love Upon the Hills, which shoots on location in Benin City. One gets the impression that Imasuen was compelled to include Morton, and by extension VICE, in the production of this film. That is not to suggest that Imasuen lacks agency — that he could not have said no. It is simply to indicate that the entreaties of a heavily capitalized, wide-reaching media producer like VICE would be difficult for anyone to resist. Imasuen may well have recognized the importance of publicizing his work, and that of the broader Nollywood industry of which he has long been a celebrated part, for HBO’s massive global audience. 

While Morton continues to characterize Nollywood in offensive terms, claiming that it “came to ape the West” in terms of “quality of [film] production” — and describing iROKOtv (which he mispronounces) as “your basic African Netflix” — the eloquent Imasuen has an opportunity to describe the industry in his own words, with an insight born of experience, passion and, above all, respect.

Noah Tsika

Noah Tsika is an assistant professor of media studies at Queens College, City University of New York, and the author of “Nollywood Stars: Media and Migration in West Africa and the Diaspora.”

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