Yesterday, I met a friend watching a Nollywood film at his apartment. His sister had put it on and had gone out of the room to answer a call, inadvertently slamming the door but the sound was hardly heard, subsumed by the loud conversations from the film we were watching. I asked my friend for the film’s title and he casually said he had no idea. It was an old Nollywood film though, with poor picture and editing, and with an ensemble of Sola Sobowale, Ngozi Ezeonu and Tony Umez, a film where people diabolically turn into dogs and goats and madness was still a thing. A large part of it was a mess, but what struck me was Sola Sobowale‘s performance.
I couldn’t fault it at first, because, hey, this is Sola Sobowale and she would go ahead to deliver a beautiful, exhilarating performance as Toyin Tomato in Oh Father! Oh Daughter!, the first volume in the Wale Adenuga hit anthology TV series Super Story. I went back home, did my research and learnt the film’s title – Hope of Glory, directed by Sunday Nnajiude and released in 2000. There were scenes I felt required little less emotional bursts from Sola Sobowale, you know that campy, over-the-top acting gymnastics we are all familiar with. Let me introduce you to the art of “Nollywood Overacting”, the flamboyant device that has befuddled critics and audiences alike. How it hasn’t been phased out from the film industry still remains a mystery; and to understand its grandiose pathology, we must first examine the human psyche within the Nigerian environment.
First, what is overacting? This typically pejorative term is used to describe an actor’s performance that is loud and overblown, and entirely at odds with other actors in a scene. This creates one of two effects – the actor is ridiculed for failing to have a grasp on the tone of the scene and what’s demanded of them, or it manufactures comic gold and actually enhances what we are watching. Overacting can elevate a film’s entertainment factor. Other times, it can make the film impossible to take seriously. This, though, isn’t peculiar to just Nollywood, as we have seen Hollywood actors indulge in overacting: Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns, rendering a gleefully over-the-top performance that allowed the sequel far out do the original. And there’s the iconic performance of Al Pacino in Scarface, whose exaggerated Cuban accent was only the tip of the overacting iceberg.
Now, have you ever been to Lagos? I’m using my city as a modern but crude petri dish of Nigerians interacting with Nigerians: the seemingly insane driver who wants to cut into your lane and you both start exchanging insults at each other; the woman squashed beside you in a bus who is talking so loudly on the phone; Pentecostal pastors and their soapy, dramatic sermons; compères at weddings or any other event with a sizably large crowd. Even when you are in the unfortunate situation of being robbed, the culprits don’t affectionately whisper in your ear that they want your money – they take it by force by putting on a loud, menacing show.
As a result of the environment, we are inherently inclined to do a little too much, and, in Nollywood, actors have to be convincing in a way that is total, complete, and indisputable. Many times I have seen Patience Ozokwor produce bloated performances, either she’s playing an aggrieved mother-in-law or just being sinister. And while I can understand the subject of domestic violence in which the 2012 film Damage tries to explore, Kalu Ikeagwu’s character comes off as slightly clownish and superfluous. I have never seen a quiet argument in a Nollywood film before, it’s always charged and borderline farcical, and sometimes I get mildly afflicted with thoughts of the actors getting injured or maimed.
For the modern Nollywood film, overacting is just nature and just can’t be expunged. Not any time soon, I reckon. We are dealing with performances that are becoming increasingly hard to ascertain whether they are good or not because they are soaked in prodigious amounts of flair and pomposity.
But I’m not judging. Or maybe I am.