The other day, I was watching an episode of a show on the Yoruba movie cable channel (with that, you should already know there would be no embed link to this – sorry!) where Yoruba filmmaker and actor extraordinaire Saidi Balogun was saying how the purpose of his movies is to spread wisdom to Nigerians on how to behave to each other and spread love to their fellow man and roll around in meadows and have flower parties with dolphins and puppies. Or something.
Yes, I know.
It has to be said, hearing a Nigerian filmmaker tout usefulness and wisdom as the point of his movies cannot be a surprise to anyone who has ever seen a Nigerian film. This isn't a direct hit at Saidi Balogun. If anything, I'm actually a big fan of his specifically, and of Yoruba movies in general. Where I find the sanctimony of their storylines to be quite grating and the often-poor quality of the production to be, well, poor, one can easily see the great quality of the acting and a real sense the filmmakers are speaking of a people they know well. Where English actors tend to be stilted, Yoruba actors are fluent, not just in the language, but in the tradition of those who they seek to depict, and this gives their films a sense of ease and color. I would argue that Yoruba filmmakers know Yoruba people in a way that English filmmakers, in the broadness of their intended audience and their lack of mastery even of the language of their art, do not their intended audience. What I'm wondering about is this notion that art must serve some utilitarian end.
Generally speaking, one of the saddest things to me about African artistic expression has always been this need to be 'useful'. Forget the obvious examples of the gorgeous printed design that gets used for clothing and stories in folklore used to spread wisdom. Take literature. Writers in French and English in the independence movements across Africa used their stories and poems to raise consciousness about freedom and political struggle. Then came women like Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, Tsitsi Dangaremgba, and Ama Ata Aidoo, who used their work to talk about women's experiences. This is not just in Africa, of course; James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston's works, for example, were not exactly P.G. Wodehouse-style fiction, after all. The thing is, I love all these writers. Their work was deep and heart-wrenching and difficult. Above all, their work was necessary.
But is this kind of work still necessary?
It is as though, having seen no knowable, physical enemy against which to write our movies, like there was for writers in new pre- and immediate post-independence literature, we have chosen some abstract monster of depravity and corruption and dressed them up like ourselves. I join in the chorus of complaint too often to say that Nigeria isn't that bad, but I think I can say that Nigeria is not all bad. We are a complex lot, and we all know that. And if we are so complex, and fimmakers seek to capture us on-screen, are we not worthy of that complexity by those who seek to depict us?
And if “mega-church Christianity meets Yoruba proverb” morality is really all we can hope for, then it cannot be too much to ask to get some simplicity. Just once, it would be wonderful if someone wasn't trying to preach to me and instead just told me a story about a man who wanted to get a girl and did all sorts of wacky things to make her go out on a date with him. That's it. No juju, nobody giving their lives to Christ at the end of the movie, no Ifa priest and prayer beads, no sudden coming of age. Just so – well-acted, maybe even funny, with characters more fleshed-out than clapboards.
The more I think about it, I wonder if the magic of Hollywood for so many of us non-Americans is this ease to create such movies as they do, movies that do not reach any further than the world that they are seen to create. While I love ambition in any artwork, there is something to the simple romantic story, the action movie with nothing beyond its gunshots and gore, the comedy that seeks nothing but your laughter, that speaks to a level of comfort in one's skin. There is nothing to parse in Titanic and Iron Man for knowledge. It just is. For reasons beyond my ken, the single-mindedness to make such films comes with a certain kind of cultural ease by people no longer driven with a need to ask questions of themselves. For now this is a privilege that it seems Nigeria cannot yet afford, and I hope that one day we can.