Netflix Nollywood tackles political corruption in Nigeria

King of Boys: The Return of the King, a seven-part limited series of Netflix, is a sustained—if ultimately pessimistic—critique of Nigerian corruption.

Netflix promo image for King of Boys: The Return of the King.

Kemi Adetiba’s The Wedding Party (2016), a buoyant, star-studded romantic comedy, was a major box-office hit in Nigeria, earning over one million dollars in the country’s theatrical marketplace—a feat that, to date, has been equaled only by the film’s sequel, Niyi Akinmolayan’s The Wedding Party 2 (2017), and exceeded only by the recent Omo Ghetto: The Saga (2020). A box-office take of 250,000 dollars typically qualifies a film as a hit in Nigeria, which has just over 60 modern movie theaters. COVID caused all of those facilities to close from March until October of last year. The December 2020 opening of Omo Ghetto was proof of the persistent popular demand for big-screen entertainment—of the desire of Nigerians to return to the cinemas even during a pandemic.

Codirected by Funke Akindele and her husband, Abdulrasheed Bello (popularly known as JJC Skillz), Omo Ghetto is a gangster film with comedic overtones, and a sequel to the 2010 epic of the same name. The tale of an all-girl gang—by no means Nollywood’s first—the original Omo Ghetto made Eniola Badmus a star and cemented Akindele’s reputation as one of the industry’s most versatile talents. In strictly representational terms, The Wedding Party and Omo Ghetto might seem polar opposites: the former celebrates romance and opulence (without exactly ignoring the underclass), while the latter offers a far grittier take on contemporary life, in keeping with Akindele’s resolutely populist star image. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Akindele’s spliff-smoking Lefty, one of the protagonists of Omo Ghetto, showing up, with her dirty face and torn overalls, in a swank “island” film like The Wedding Party.

Adetiba’s follow-up to that smash hit, 2018’s King of Boys, is situated somewhere in between. A crime drama that focuses on the fruits of gangsterism, it is equal parts underworld opera and fashion-conscious “Lekki porn.” It opens with a reference to perhaps the most famous wedding ceremony in cinema history: the nuptials with which Francis Ford Coppola launches The Godfather (1972). While no one is actually getting married at the start of King of Boys, the festive atmosphere, with scores of sprucely dressed celebrants congregating in a courtyard in Lagos, contrasts (as in The Godfather) with somber “backstage” scenes of dealmaking and violence. The squat, fifty-something Eniola Salami (played by the great Sola Sobowale) is being fêted for her supposed contributions to the local economy. Powerful politicians have turned up for the occasion. The emcee repeatedly refers to Salami as “the mother of the whole community.” Famous musicians materialize to sing her praises. It is all, of course, an elaborate front. Behind the scenes, Salami oversees the torture of those “area boys” who fail to carry out her orders; she even clubs one of them to death, getting blood on her ceremonial robe. It is Salami, the outwardly upstanding oba (or ruler), who is the “king of boys”—a Godfather of sorts, her ill-gotten gains increasingly breeding resentment. A later scene directly references the Coppola film: seated in her shiny office, where, flanked by crosses and portraits of Jesus Christ, she receives all manner of supplicants, Salami is forced to assert her authority, ordering a market woman who has come to her for help to stop crying. “Tears are not allowed here!” she screams, echoing Don Vito Corleone’s “You can act like a man!”

The allusions to The Godfather do not end there, but King of Boys is no mere pastiche. Like Adetiba’s previous film, it examines some uniquely Nigerian realities within the structure of a broadly familiar genre. The appeal of The Wedding Party lay, perhaps, not in its status as a romantic comedy, but instead in its capacity to reflect some of the recognizable contours of a ceremony that is at once general—a big Nigerian wedding—and particularized (some would say strategically) according to the experiences of a range of ethnic groups, who make the nuptials a truly multicultural affair. The Wedding Party features a rich linguistic blend from the start: standard English coexists with Yorùbá, Igbo, and various inflections of Pidgin, marking the eponymous celebration as a diverse occasion. Such diversity is hardly taken for granted, however; the Yoruba mother of the bride cannot (or will not) distinguish between Igbo and Efik, much to the chagrin of the Igbo mother of the groom. This is an Old Nollywood tension—familiar from so many romantic melodramas focused on cross-ethnic affairs—updated to fit New Nollywood’s fancier circumstances. Here, they include formal elements like widescreen cinematography and carefully monitored dialogue recorded in professional, soundproof postproduction studios, as well as the general excess of the wedding itself, with its catered meals depicted in an extended montage of mouthwatering close-ups. The multilingual King of Boys continues the trend, with cutaways to bowls of exquisite àmàlà, gbegiri, and ewedu.

Whatever the reasons for its success with audiences, The Wedding Party clearly had “legs,” moving from the Toronto International Film Festival to multiplexes in Nigeria to, eventually, an “afterlife” on Netflix. King of Boys followed a similar trajectory, its nearly two-year run on Netflix preceding the streamer’s decision to obtain exclusive distribution rights to Adetiba’s sequel, King of Boys: The Return of the King, a seven-part limited series that premiered on Netflix in late August. The 2018 film ended with Salami—besieged not only by those attempting to usurp her crown as king of the underworld but also by law enforcement agents eager to ensure her prosecution—fleeing to Brooklyn. The Netflix series, whose seven episodes were all written and directed by Adetiba, opens with the oba returning to Nigeria after a two-year exile in the United States.

Above all, the series, like the feature film that preceded it, is a showcase for the outsize talent of Sola Sobowale. She is utterly transfixing, even when ordering two cups of ata rodo. Giving her new housemaid detailed instructions, concentrating on every word, Sobowale quietly conveys Salami’s power. The dinner order is a threat: get it wrong, and you will surely suffer. The housemaid is rattled, and so is the viewer; Sobowale—the actress as oba—has both in her grip. (She isn’t as menacing as Mama G, but who is?) Moments later, the grieving Salami, whose daughter-cum-consigliere died (at the end of the 2018 film) taking a bullet intended for the oba, and whose wayward son committed suicide shortly thereafter, is overcome with sorrow. Alone in her bedroom, she self-flagellates, wailing over the deaths of her two children, wondering if she is truly to blame, appealing to God for answers. Sobowale’s range is remarkable, and the seven-episode Return of the King gives her the expansive screen time she deserves.

Salami has returned to Nigeria not simply because the corrupt federal government has exonerated her, but also because she herself wishes to run for political office. Appealing to popular dissatisfaction, seeking to exploit the very unrest that her own criminality exacerbates, Salami swiftly enters the race for governor of Lagos State. Like that of so many politicians, her populism is merely a masquerade, a smokescreen for despotism. Eventually, she is able to secure the support of a major party and runs against the incumbent in a race as twisted as anything in House of Cards (2013–2018). Dramatizing the domain of domestic politics, The Return of the King takes for granted that fraud and corruption are companions of electoral politics in Nigeria, as inescapable as egusi soup. To an even greater degree than the original feature film, the Netflix series alludes to the recent history of Nigeria. While portraits of Goodluck Jonathan appear throughout the former, a fictional president is installed in the latter, allowing Adetiba to explore, through an imaginary proxy, the scandals of some of Nigeria’s actual leaders. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, in particular, haunts the dramatic proceedings, as does the fact that, in 2007 (the year Obasanjo left office), 31 of Nigeria’s 36 governors were indicted on charges of corruption. Obasanjo’s anti-corruption rhetoric served to conceal—especially for the foreign press—the misconduct that he allowed to persist. His anti-corruption trials were toothless and purely for show, much like the displays of concern that Salami and others (including Adetiba’s fictional president) so self-servingly make in The Return of the King.

Adetiba even ruthlessly satirizes Obasanjo’s establishment of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (both of which received technical assistance from Washington). While other recent Nigerian films (like Faraday Okoro’s 2018 thriller Nigerian Prince, financed by AT&T) approvingly depict the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (Nigerian Prince even shows the agency successfully collaborating with the US Secret Service), Adetiba is much harsher. Fictionalizing the agency as the “Nigerian Corruption Crime Commission” (NCCC), she caricatures the hypocrisies of those who claim to be ridding the country of vice. Those who seek to expose Salami’s crimes are bedeviled by personal troubles even before they invite the oba’s wrath. Nurudeen Gobir (Paul Sambo), the Hausa man who heads the NCCC’s special financial crimes department, is so exhausted by the end of the 2018 King of Boys that he decides to “spare” Salami. His wife seriously ill, his medical debts mounting, he finally gives up hope of ever bringing criminal kingpins to justice. He lets Salami go, allowing her to relocate to Brooklyn. When she returns to Nigeria two years later, at the start of the Netflix series, Dapo Banjo (Efa Iwara), an ambitious young reporter for the fictional Conscience newspaper, is eager to expose her crimes and to investigate Gobir’s complicity. The workaholic Dapo, estranged from his wife, is obsessed with revealing the existence of the “Nigerian mafia” over which Salami has long presided, and he is the only incorruptible character in The Return of the King. Through him, Adetiba explores historical alternatives to rampant corruption, drawing on a countervailing tradition that has been a source of Nigerian national pride since the colonial period: the press. But her approach is hardly innocent. She knows that journalists are bribable too, and that governmental malfeasance is often so entrenched as to be effectively immune to exposure. Dapo is the lone voice of conscience in The Return of the King. “Where is the dignity in keeping quiet while the masses face unspeakable atrocities?” he asks the tired, defeated publisher of the newspaper, who has lost all sense of mission and struggles simply to keep the lights on. He continues:

Those people who can’t speak for themselves, while the people in power, all they do is pillage, rape, and destroy this country. And what do we do? We turn the other cheek. Sir, nobody is bold enough to stand up for what is right. This country has so much potential. And what do we do? We do nothing with it. It is our duty as the conscience of the people to stand up and speak for what is right.

Produced at the height of the End SARS protests—a popular movement launched in 2017 to disband the Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad—The Return of the King is skeptical of all forms of law enforcement. Everyone’s a criminal in Adetiba’s Nigeria—politicians and lawmen most of all. So cynical is her approach that she leaves even Dapo hanging. Heroically resisting Salami’s attempts to pay him off, narrowly escaping a letter bomb intended to end his life, Dapo is nevertheless unable to penetrate the protective mechanisms of power politics. He’s last seen fleeing on foot on an empty street in the dead of night—a ghost on the run.

There are some literal ghosts in King of Boys. At times, Salami’s younger self shows up to taunt her. Closer to the abject poverty into which she was born, this twentysomething Salami, with her more immediate memories of forced childhood prostitution, ridicules the relative “softness” of her older self. Skillfully played by Toni Tones, who matches up well with Sobowale, the young Salami is an Old Nollywood demon, like the ghosts of the oba’s dead children—who also, evoking the original Living in Bondage, turn up to torment her. Adetiba does, however, overdo the auto-tune, giving Tones some silly “otherworldly” inflections.

Adetiba’s stylistic inconsistency, triumphantly resolved in the communal celebration with which The Wedding Party concludes, but increasingly confusing and staccato in the unwieldy three-hour film of King of Boys, is better suited to the serial form. Early episodes of The Return of the King are given over to the oba’s anguished imaginings—to expressionist materializations of her inner demons. Later ones eschew this occult style, opting for sheer sociopolitical realism, as Salami confronts the gubernatorial race and its attendant immoral economies. Still other episodes focus on the street violence that the oba both authorizes and is unable to control. Taken together, these seven episodes amount to a sustained—if ultimately pessimistic—critique of Nigerian corruption.

Further Reading