Imagining new stories, new freedoms, and new joys

Lindsey Green-Simms’ book 'Queer African Cinemas' confirms her status as a leading Africanist working at the intersections of postcolonial thought, queer theory, and screen media.

Still from Rafiki ©

It’s difficult to think of anyone who has done more to illuminate the queer careers of African cinemas than Lindsey Green-Simms. Starting with her groundbreaking 2012 essay “The Video Closet: Nollywood’s Gay-Themed Movies,” which she coauthored with the redoubtable Nigerian writer, activist, academic, and African literatures expert Unoma Azuah, Green-Simms has forged a distinct path within the growing field of queer African studies. Newly published by Duke University Press, her book Queer African Cinemas (2022) is an invaluable contribution that confirms its author’s status as a leading Africanist working at the intersections of postcolonial thought, queer theory, and screen media.

Green-Simms’s task has been doubly daunting. It’s challenging enough to get scholarly communities to take African cinemas (particularly Nollywood) seriously, and harder still to convince naysayers that “queer” has any real currency on the continent. The book’s title, then, is a provocation. For not only is “queer cinema” discernible in and through African industries; it’s also multitudinous, varied, and diffusive. It demands the plural form that Green-Simms assumes. Her book, while it cannot be comprehensive, offers rich insights into the queerness of audiovisual cultural production (and reception) in key national and regional contexts. Green-Simms rightly notes that some African media industries are simply more prolific than others—that it makes sense to scrutinize developments in and around production hubs in, among other megacities, Lagos, Nairobi, and Cape Town. But she does not deny the existence of other, smaller sites of production and reception—including those yet to be “discovered.” After all, queerness itself is illimitable, and potentially locatable in “unlikely” places. Queer African Cinemas is magisterial, but—excitingly—it is not the last word on the subject. Green-Simms has written a clear-eyed, authoritative book on which future studies will be obliged to build.

Queer African Cinemas is framed by recent events, registering “the upsurge in homophobia that swept up many African countries in the first decades of the twenty-first century.” Indeed, the intensification of anti-gay and anti-trans legislation in Nigeria (which saw the signing of the far-reaching Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in 2014), Uganda (where the bluntly named Anti-Homosexuality Act was signed just one month later), and other African countries is one reason for the aforementioned reluctance to take the notion of “queer African cinemas” seriously. If homosexuality is illegal (and Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, at least on paper, criminalizes even support for LGBTQ rights), then how can queer movies be made? Green-Simms offers a brilliant, deeply theoretically informed, and altogether inspiring answer to that question, highlighting filmmakers who have endeavored to “find alternatives to the violent heteronormativity that continually threatens hopes of queer belonging and life-building.”

Queer African Cinemas thus avoids the sort of pessimism that would simply deny queer Africanity—or, in an equally essentialist mode, consign the continent to the reactionary shadows. At the same time, Green-Simms acknowledges (and includes in the eponymous category) some patently anti-queer films, like Dickson Iroegbu’s Law 58 (2012), which opens with a text that denounces homosexuality as an “inordinate act.” Simply put, Queer African Cinemas is not fettered by respectability politics. Green-Simms is not out to emphasize only “positive” representations. Indeed, her book is queerly open to interpretive possibilities, to a greater degree than anything I’ve read on the subject. It offers a model for how to “do” queer African studies.

Central to this model is Green-Simms’s nuanced account of the concept of resistance. She asks, “What happens when we see resistance not as the opposite of subordination and complacency but as something that is entangled with it? While resistance is often assumed to be transgressive or in opposition to power, it can often mean the exact opposite.” She also queerly considers some of the complicated legacies of European colonialism. Queer African Cinemas specifically looks at how British penal codes written around the turn of the twentieth century continue to structure the criminalization of homosexuality and same-sex marriage in Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya. Indeed, anti-sodomy laws drafted in 1897 have not only remained on the books in Nigeria but have also been expanded in recent years.

Queer African Cinemas is no simple inventory of LGBTQ images. It also engages the political economy of commercial filmmaking on the continent. In the case of West Africa, that means emphasizing that FilmHouse, the largest theater chain in the region, is a vertically integrated company with a production and distribution branch called FilmOne. Green-Simms’s work demonstrates what’s dangerous about a firm like FilmHouse having such disproportionate power in West Africa. She writes about how FilmOne agreed to stream the queer-friendly 2018 Nollywood film We Don’t Live Here Anymore but then got cold feet and pulled the film from its Nigerian site—allegedly in response to subscriber complaints, but probably also out of fear of government reprisals. In Nigeria’s current first-run theatrical marketplace, there are precious few alternatives to FilmHouse, as Genevieve Nnaji recently learned when her directorial debut Lionheart (2018) was denied a significant big-screen release despite the superstar’s best efforts. Yet for all these hurdles, queer African cinemas survive, including in festival spaces and other idiosyncratic locations to which Green-Simms is admirably alert.

Queer African Cinemas is, then, attentive to conditions of production, distribution, and consumption on the African continent. An introductory chapter explains the historiographical and theoretical stakes of Green-Simms’s arguments. Chapter 1 adopts a regional perspective to consider the queer credentials of “West African wayward women” in an array of films produced over a number of years. Chapter 2 considers the complex and often contentious process of negotiating queer characters and themes in Nollywood films. Chapter 3 investigates postapartheid South African cinema, and Chapter 4, returning to the regional vantage of the first chapter, offers an eye-opening account of “queer love and critical resilience” in East Africa. A coda offers the author’s thoughts on the possible futures of queer African cinemas, including through a breathtaking reexamination of Mohamed Camara’s canonical Dakan (1997)—a film that, like Green-Simms’s book, “holds space to imagine new stories, new freedoms, and new joys.”

Further Reading