Film Review: Joy, pain, defiance in HBO’s The Legend of the Underground

The infamous Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act signed into law in 2014 revealed the cowardice of the Goodluck Jonathan Presidency. Failing helplessly at the primary charge of providing any dividends of democracy, Jonathan was quick to assent to a populist leaning, badly thought-out bill that arrived with more questions than answers.

The intent of this law may have been clear- to bring state sanctioned discrimination to the doorstep of the LGBTQ+ community- but the wording and the framing was terribly unambiguous. Dangerous too as far as enforcement was going to be concerned. Terms of operation were left in the hands of law enforcement agencies and these lapses in judgement led to among others, the incident of August 2018 in which over 50 men were arrested at a party in Egbeda, Lagos after policemen received a tip off that they were being initiated into a “homosexual club.”

This arrest, beamed to the world via a cringeworthy press conference and parading of suspected persons is the entry point of the terrific new HBO documentary, The Legend of the Underground. Executive produced by John Legend’s Get Lifted company and directed by the duo of Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey.

One of the domino effects of the SSMP law was that an entire community of LGBTQ+ persons was forced underground and mandated to live their lives unseen and unheard. It wasn’t just the queer community though. The law had the unintended consequences of stifling the gamut of creative expressions that a certain amount of freedom allows. Thus, in order to avoid incidents like the Egbeda debacle or the scores of often unreported encounters that this bigotry fuels, non-conformists, rebels and misfits were forced underground. Difference was to be stifled not celebrated.

The Legend of the Underground which scored its world premiere in June at the Tribeca festival and is now streaming on HBO Max delves into the Nigerian underground scene profiling some of its brightest stars, from Lagos to New York City. These individuals use every medium available to them; talk, dance, style, social media, community engagement and even the law to express themselves and fight for their right to exist as legitimate, productive members of society.

The personalities platformed in this snappy, punchy documentary are bigger than the circumstances that seek to hold them back. They have huge challenges sure enough and Onuorah and Bailey carefully outline the gravity of these situations.

Deji, a poet who lives in Harlem as a legal alien is stuck in immigration limbo. Edafe, an activist still lives with the scars of forced detention. For Michael, a Harlem-based activist who is the film’s emotional anchor and grounds the film with a plainspoken affect, the conflict is internal. Even after suffering targeted persecution, he cannot quite bring himself to turn away from the country that betrayed him.

In Lagos, the issues are even more dire. With the threat of imprisonment hovering like a specter, non-conformists are faced with limited choices. James Brown, the “world famous” dancer who became a viral sensation while boldly defending himself after the Egbeda arrests were made. “Did they caught me?” he queried confidently, effectively drawing attention to his plight while seizing the power from his persecutors. Turns out he was right after all. This defiant spirit, present in James Brown then and now, is thoroughly highlighted by the filmmakers who seem to be fascinated especially by his rise and rise since the arrests were made. As a result, he very nearly steals the film.

James Brown may have achieved fame and following (rapper 50 Cent mentioned him on Instagram) but things aren’t exactly peachy for him. At the time of contact with the filmmakers, he is living in a safe house after being thrown out of his home. The Royal House of Allure started by Michael, another minor focus of the documentary provides shelter for at risk youth who have nowhere else to go. Brown is also victim of vicious online and physical bullying when he isn’t being requested to present himself to court as the state mounts its- admittedly shoddy- case against the Egbeda 57.

Instead of shriveling, these nonconformists choose to make themselves seen and heard and The Legend of the Underground is a celebration of this indomitable spirit. Bailey and Onuorah- whose father is Nigerian born- highlight the lives of these dissenters. In some cases, their lives and work are indistinguishable from the other, necessarily so.

The filmmakers make interesting visual choices that elevate The Legend of the Underground to something akin to high art. Bright neon lightening vividly depicts this underground scene with bold, finely wrought moving images of young men dancing, performing or simply finding joy. The fluidity of the images mirrors the lifestyles of the characters and restores elegance as well as dignity to the bodies on screen.

While celebrating the impact of its motley crue of non-conformists, the film also gently probes the tensions within the star players with James Brown at the centre of these conflicts. Because of his position and antecedents, James Brown becomes the film’s placeholder for navigating these teething tensions.

Is Brown advocating for the community or is he merely a clout chasing opportunist? Is he representative of the community and does he even want to be? Is there any one way of advocating and whose responsibility- if any- is it to define the terms of engagement? How much of this friction is down to the generation divide and how much of it is elitism?

While older activists working in Nigeria view James Brown with suspicion, disdain even, Michael who makes the trip back home offers a more sensible, potentially productive line of reasoning. One that embraces understanding and mutual respect.

The Legend of the Underground makes a cursory nod to these issues but that isn’t really where the hearts of the filmmakers lie. Or perhaps their distance makes for a less than thorough understanding of the complex dynamics of this world.

As a glorious celebration of triumph and tragedy though, the film finds its groove and moves with a beat of its own making. The editing is fast and furious, the music groovy and the images crisp. Audiences regardless of their inclinations are likely to emerge from the film with deeper insight and newfound respect for the subjects at the center of the film. The collective sustained advocacy they are putting in may be grueling work, but there is joy to be snatched in glimpses. The cultural revolution birthing from these underground rooms will be televised obviously. Tweeted and instagrammed too.

Or are the young kids on TikTok these days?

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