Genevieve Nnaji isn’t a fan of the division of the film industry into old and new Nollywood. These boxes and labels, convenient but ultimately far from all-encompassing were employed by the media in response to the pivot of Nollywood films to cinema, as distributors began to seek out new ways of reaching audiences. “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.” Ms Nnaji told The Africa Report sometime last year.
For Lionheart, her directorial debut- and Netflix’s first original release in Nigeria- Nnaji proves her point by blurring this line, thus making it a non-issue. For her warm-hearted tale of a powerful Igbo transporting family navigating change in the business, Nnaji assembles beloved industry veterans like Pete Edochie, Onyeka Onwenu, Nkem Owoh and Ngozi Ezeonu and mixes things up with new school talent like Jemima Osunde and rapper Phyno.
Lionheart tracks the Obiagus, a successful Enugu based family running one of the biggest road transport companies in country. The story is one of succession, sexism and navigating change in a shifting landscape. Lionheart’s unforced comic moments and pro-family values messaging would sit well in any one of the Nollywood films made ten years back, the kind of films that gifted Nnaji with fame and fortune. But in keeping with the times and with her ambitions as perhaps the biggest film star on the continent, Lionheart is also up to the minute in terms of production values.
To give her film a distinct look and feel, Nnaji hires the supremely talented Yinka Edwards who gets the brief and then goes out of his way to suffuse the picture with a glow that captures the essence and local colors of the coal city. With sweeping shots displaying breathtaking green hills and red dusty roads, Lionheart is the big screen love letter that Enugu has deserved for decades.
Nnaji plays Adaeze, the level headed heir to the Obiagu business empire. Thanks to her father’s relentless work ethic, she grew up in the bus park and has come to understand the business quite well, working her way to management level. But when Chief Ernest Obiagu (Edochie) suffers a heart attack and Adaeze is sidelined for the top job in favor of her uncle (a delightfully brisk Nkem Owoh), she must learn to embrace team work in order to save the company from certain acquisition by a greedy rival, Igwe Pascal (Kanayo O. Kanayo in a smart cameo)
Lionheart is obviously a labor of love for Ms Nnaji and an ode to her origins, both personal and professional. The road transportation business, evolving from a need to support the multi-million trading economy between the east and the rest of the country has produced some of the most recognizable business brands owned by Igbos. So it makes plenty sense that Nnaji would use this rich world as back drop for her film.
A good portion of Lionheart’s dialogue is in Igbo- with subtitles- and the film features a rich display of the food, the industry of the people- Innoson made in Nigeria SUVs are liberally displayed- the music, culture and a thoughtful tribute to the late icon, Amaka Igwe.
Speaking of, Nnaji is nothing if not respectful to the history of Nollywood and even when the screenplay is tightly wound, she carves out space for the veterans to get their shine time. Onyeka Onwenu’s voice is music to the ears, Pete Edochie gets his chance to be his charismatic, majestic self once again and it is a small pleasure to know the great Chika Okpala alive and thriving. Seeing these veterans on screen once again in a film that seeks to pay homage to their provenance is suitably heartwarming.
Nnaji herself is a joy to watch onscreen as always. Not usually associated with comedy, she shows great comic timing and nails every beat of her character’s arc. It isn’t a role that is demanding, perhaps deliberately so because of her duties elsewhere, but her screen presence remains as striking as ever.
Joining Nnaji on the writing team are Chinny Onwugbenu, CJ Obasi, Emil B. Garuba and Ishaya Bako. It is a formidable team but the screenplay plays like it could have done with more work. The team cannot quite melt away the plaque of cheese that surrounds the film and the big, heartfelt speeches could have been less generic, more meaningful. The villains aren’t quite formed either and perhaps the writing could have been served by a little more depth.
Everything is redeemed by an excellent dinner scene that is the heart and soul of Lionheart. Surely one of the finest moments ever captured on Nigerian film, the entire Obiagu family gathers for dinner and the warm camaraderie in the room feels so natural and so right. For some glorious moments, the camera melts away and everyone who is involved in that scene isn’t acting but being, proudly Igbo and gloriously living this truth. It takes a special eye to encapsulate that.
This makes it all the more unfortunate that Lionheart has been fraught with so much controversy. From the production blues in Enugu where Nnaji reportedly let go of the director earlier attached to the project- he gets writing credit- to the drama involving local exhibitors, plus reports of theatre screenings without subtitles, it hasn’t been the most elegant of roll outs for Lionheart.
Shame, as the film deserves so much more. More accessible than her previous Road to Yesterday, the bubbly and visually appealing Lionheart demands to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
More importantly, the primary lesson that everyone should be taking from Nnaji, Lionheart and the Netflix deal is gradually being lost in the shuffle. Lionheart could do something for the industry by presenting a skeletal template for taking Nigerian stories to an international audience without selling out or losing that local flavor that has made Nollywood a billion-Naira industry. This is what the guys who made Half of a Yellow Sun could never figure out. And something Nnaji seems to have a handle of. How to take Nollywood content global, but on our own terms. Nnaji should be proud of her film, and so should everyone else.