Genevieve Nnaji: “We should change the way we tell our stories”
Genevieve Nnaji sweeps into her office in the Lekki Phase 1 development on Lagos Island, offers a diffident hello to the folks in the lobby, and skips up the stairs. After greeting her disappearing form, the occupants of the reception area return their gaze to a Nollywood film in Yoruba playing on a screen hanging on the wall. It is the type of melodrama that made Nnaji’s name in Nigeria and around the continent. But over the past few years, Nollywood’s lead actress has avoided this kind of script.
“When I was very prominent in the film industry, I played all sort of characters,” Nnaji says, seated with her manager in the small but comfy office. “Mum, daughter, deaf, dumb, blind, young, in school, wicked, kind – [I’ve] done it all. Even a mad woman. But how do you make things more interesting?” She pauses, then answers her own question: “It’s really by the twists and turns. People are going to tell the same Romeo and Juliet story but what angle do you tell it from? I think that is what Nollywood needs. We have to be more creative in the way we tell our stories.”
After a good five years in which she was frequently absent from Nollywood screens, the actress has moved into production in order to make the kinds of film she wants to see. Her first film as a producer – in which she also stars opposite Oris Erhuero, with Chioma Omeruah and Majid Michel in supporting roles – was Road to Yesterday. Released in November 2015, it follows a couple as they try to mend their marriage on a road trip to a relative’s funeral. It is a generic story about matrimony, but the film tells it differently and acquires a psychological edge by the denouement. Reactions were mixed, but critics picked out the cinematography – including sweeping drone-shots of Lagos – and an original twist in the plot as worthy of praise, commending Nnaji for daring to break out of the familiar Nollywood formula.
Road To Yesterday was directed by Ishaya Bako, a graduate of the London Film School who acquired some notoriety for his 2012 political documentary Fuelling Poverty, which was banned by the censorship board in Nigeria. Bako belongs to a newer set of filmmakers – mostly young and film-school-educated – who have caused some turbulence in the film industry, fuelling talk of New Nollywood and Old Nollywood. Nnaji says this is meaningless: “People come in, and we should expect to grow younger artists. Every industry should transcend to the next level. There is nothing like New Nollywood or Old Nollywood. There is only continuation.”
Nnaji’s decision to produce her own films comes after a career where she has been both the darling of Nollywood and a pariah.
“I have always been selective,” she says. “The reason it seems like I did more back then is because there were a lot more choices. That seems to have died in the past few years. We are changing the kind of stories we tell when we should be changing the way we tell them.”
It is hard not to see this as criticism of a section of newer filmmakers who have been raised on Hollywood flicks and now seek to recreate them in Nigeria. “I saw quite a lot of stories with James Bond wannabes,” she responds. “They were not authentic to who we are as Nigerians and Africans. I am not buying it, so I doubt [other] people will. And for me it gets to a point when it’s no longer about the money. It’s about craft. I would not be part of a production I don’t believe in my heart.”
Recently, eschewing Nollywood was her choice, but back in 2004 the Actors Guild of Nigeria banned her and several of her peers from working, claiming they were asking exorbitant fees. “When a group says ‘You are done for’ and pretty much pulls the rug from under your feet… it was at that point I knew I could survive without the industry for a bit,” she says.
She has made forays into music, a clothing line and product endorsement, earning a reported N20m ($63,000) as the face of Lux. These days she’s into real estate – “that’s my nine to five” – but beneath her graciousness, she seems perplexed by the banning experience. It was a long time ago but it wounded her. Nevertheless, she has now moved on.
Nnaji was a child actor, starring in the popular television soap Ripples, but her middle-class family expected her to study to become a lawyer. She was drawn back into acting when she ran into an old, now famous, friend who was part of Ripples and who recognised her almost a decade after she left the show. He invited her for an audition. “I lied about where I was going,” she says. “I think I did very well because I got the biggest cameor ole.”She laughs a short, self- deprecatory laugh.
Her days of cameos were over shortly after getting that role in Most Wanted, a 1998 Nollywood action flick with female heroines, modelled on the US’s Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith vehicle Set It Off. Fifteen years later, however, after star- ring in numerous films, Nnaji accepted to play a cameo role again – in the 2013, Biyi Bandele-directed adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun. While the film was in production, reports that British actress Thandie Newton and American Anika Noni Rose would be playing the twin sisters central to the story were met with a negative reaction in Nigeria. A Nigerian ought to play the lead role, Nnaji’s fans said, and who else but the queen of Nigerian cinema, who is Igbo to boot?
Upon release, foreign reviews ranged from harsh to middling while local critics were either forgiving or hostile. The Nigerian actor OC Ukeje complained that a film he had a bigger role in was ignored for his brief showing in Half of a Yellow Sun. Nnaji’s performance was pooh-poohed by the Nigerian public. What did she think of the response?
She sighs, and, for the first time during our talk, appears ruffled. “Yeah, I heard,” she says, subdued. “I took the role in Half of a Yellow Sun for a lot of personal reasons,” she explains. “The Biafra war involved my tribe. Plus, I am an actor: I don’t believe in small roles. It was a big movie, but most importantly I think I owed it to myself, my tribe and my industry to bring the story home. I took on the role and I had no regrets at the time. And I did my best as an actor which is what you do: you accept, you access and you move on. I completely understood people’s reservations. I probably shared the same. But it was a deeper agenda for me.”
NOT A COMPETITION
Part of the disappointment at Nnaji’s casting in Half of a Yellow Sun was that many Nollywood fans credited Nnaji as the one Nollywood star who would make it into Hollywood. Has the actress herself considered Tinseltown?
“Even African-Americans are still struggling to be accepted into the Hollywood circle, so what are the chances that Africans will be welcomed in?” she says. “This is not a competition with Hollywood. I hope that we take from Hollywood the necessary things that we need to be progressive. But it is not the benchmark for me, Genevieve Nnaji. The only place I’ve ever envisioned performing has been Nigeria.
What Nnaji has always wanted is to be is the best in her field, in her industry. “I want to be better than yesterday and I want to improve as the industry improves,” she says. “And the only way we’ll get there is to tell our stories in a quality format. There’s a reason we are successful – we can’t overlook that element that makes us unique. We are enough. We have the numbers. Not just in Nigeria but the whole of Africa.”
She continues: “I have done exactly what I wanted to do, which is perform and act and that is exactly what I will continue to do. Except now I’ve gone behind the scenes, and for me that’s a transition to the next level. There are other productions in the future where I wouldn’t even be in front of the camera. Being behind the scenes of Road to Yesterday was quite an experience, and I am looking forward to it again.”
How soon? “Pretty soon,” she replies.