Nigeria’s King of Thieves blends ‘traditional Yoruba theatre with cinematic dynamism’

By Michael Kolawole
Posted on Thursday, 27 October 2022 10:40

Photo from film 'King of Thieves'

Epic Nollywood film 'King of Thieves' is a thrilling and remarkably accomplished film layered with an admirable narrative, stunning and distinctive visual effects and compelling performances strung together to create a magical tale of retribution and forgiveness.

The film is inspired by older historical Yoruba films that had embodied the symbolic spirit of Yoruba mythologies.

But, unlike the old films that were tacky and excessive in technique and acting, this film is well-defined and enchanting.

It is clever how it overlaps traditional Yoruba theatre with the supernatural dynamism of cinema.

Buoyed by voice-over narrative, the story is narrated with precision. It opens in an art gallery, where we see a lady gazing fascinatingly at a painting of a treacherous-looking man on a horse. The gallery curator (played by Segun Arinze) walks to the lady and asks if she would like to hear a story about the painting. The lady agrees and the story begins.

Blend of rituals and culture

We flashback and settle on a terrifying-looking group of men riding horses in the ancient Yoruba Kingdom named Ajeromi.

The leader of the group stops to shoot a human head prodding out of the ground, a look-alike of his own before speeding off. In a subsequent scene, we see three men buried with their heads sticking out of the earth.

They are accused of stealing, a forbidden crime in the community punishable by death. Still, that is not where the story begins. These scenes simply established the film’s metaphysical tone and set-pieces.

The actual story begins with the carnivalesque coronation of Adegbite (played by Odunlade Adekola), the community’s new monarch. The coronation is a blend of rituals and culture.

To complete his reign as the new king, Adegbite gives accolades to the witches, the wizards, the Sango Oracle, and the masquerades—all component elements with supernatural forces.

Tale of retribution

When the king is about to settle down and begins his reign, Ageshinkole, the invincible King of Thieves strikes and ravages the community’s peace.

Besides the gruesome tale of retribution, the King of Thieves subplot tells a tale of love, bitterness, and sacrifice. Thespian Ibrahim Chatta plays Oguntade, the magnanimous hunter-leader and the lead for the subplot.

Oguntade has a bitter wife, whose bitterness, according to Ifa divination, would be her death. To save his wife from an untimely death, Oguntade is instructed to kill an antelope to appease Ogun, the god of iron.

Instead of killing the sacrificial animal, Oguntade steals it. He is arrested and becomes a sacrificial lamb appointed to combat the indestructible Ageshinkole. The subplot intertwined with the main plot when Oguntade confronts Ageshinkole in a scintillating battle of incantation, magic, and spirituality.

Majestic performances

Established on a story from Femi Adebayo, the screenwriter Yinka Olaoye creates a simple but fierce narrative with an intense plot driven by elegant and gritty performances from a couple of well-developed characters.k

Eschewing the comedic trope and ham-up performances that are characteristic of his career, actor Femi Adebayo puts up a vicious and majestic performance as Ageshinkole, the invincible bandit leader.

Before he became the menacing bandit leader, Ageshinkole was a calm young man named Adeoye who was vying for the position of community king. He was betrayed and framed by some elders he trusted to help him win the kingship position. He and his best friend were exterminated. Their spirits reincarnated and they transcend the bounds of human potential and physical ordinances to wreak havoc on the community.

Odunlade Adekola’s performance as Adegbite, the troubled community monarch, is sublime. Though he doesn’t do much, the way he portrays his inner anguish and his outbursts when he lambasts the powerful forces in the community is a decent show of power.

Dramatic verve and rhythm

Ibrahim Chatta’s Oguntade is sleek and memorable. His comportment, energy and silver tongue help the film achieve its contrivance.

Toyin Abraham renders an intense and remarkable performance as Bunuola, the king’s wife and a witch, but her rendition is slightly tainted by overdramatisation.

Though the major principle of filmmaking is to show rather than tell, voice-over narrative is used to explore a personal outlook and fill the gaps that would have resulted in plot holes. To fill in the plot holes in King of Thieves, Segun Arinze’s voice-over narrative, poetry harmonised by thought, is deployed with dramatic verve and rhythm.

The subplot intertwined with the main plot … in a scintillating battle of incantation, magic, and spirituality.”

King of Thieves transforms the mythical repertoire of old Yoruba theatre troupes by injecting it with a modern technique and vigour and preserving it for posterity.

Just like Afolayan’s Anikulapo, and the late Biyi Bandele’s Eleshin Oba, an adaptation of Soyinka’s Death and The King’s Horseman, King of Thieves harps on the Yoruba supernatural matrix and folktale to disseminate the message of virtue and cultural renewal to the world.

The film ends in a didactic traditional Yoruba theatre style. The people converge and the antagonist, now a protagonist and a deity, gives instructions laden with social commentaries: he admonishes the people to steer off evil to avoid future calamity.

Nevertheless, its metaphysical conciliation, contrivance, and denouement are befitting of its folkloric narrative.

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