For four straight years now, Ebony Life Films has been champion of the end of year box office. From Fifty to Chief Daddy and The Wedding Party films, no one makes holiday season bank quite like Mo Abudu in full mogul mode. To deliver her fifth December blockbuster movie, the Ebony Life CEO is placing all her bets on the bankability of superstar actress, writer, producer and now first-time director, Funke Akindele Bello. Come December, Ebony Life Films unveils the glossy star powered comedy, Your Excellency.
At first glance it would seem like a gamble, putting faith in Akindele-Bello to deliver a big budget blockbuster would be. As versed as Funke Akindele Bello may be in the production trenches- twenty years and counting- she does not have experience directing a feature length. But on closer inspection perhaps it makes all the sense. Since she was re-introduced to the country as the lovable, social climbing country bumkin Sulia who on arrival in the big city, changes her name to Jenifa, Funke Akindele has been one of the most bankable and enduring movie stars.
Her work (and worth) encompasses film, television and even comedy. She straddles both English and Yoruba speaking parts of the country. Her name is gold, her face easily recognizable, and her endorsement deal with Heritage Bank certainly does not hurt. For the perceptive, business inclined Mo Abudu who had worked with Akindele Bello in last year’s Chief Daddy as well as earlier on the reality television show Screen Queens, the outlook was promising. Akindele-Bello, mother of twin boys, now adds another garland to an already impressive career. o
With Your Excellency, the story of a down and out politician who scores a new lease on life with the aid of social media, Akindele Bello joins a growing class of movie stars who are turning to directing. Omoni Oboli has been helming her own films since Being Mrs Elliot, Genevieve Nnaji took the plunge with last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) debuting Lionheart and Ramsey Nouah is placing all his bets on nostalgia and fan connect for his big budget sequel to the iconic Nollywood title, Living in Bondage.
Your Excellency may not seem like the work of an auteur- although there is the argument that Mo Abudu is herself somewhat of an auteur, considering all her movies have a glossy, clumsy, colorfully packaged aesthetic but it is still a huge leap for the woman who wasn’t given a chance by the traditional gatekeepers when she was first starting out.
It might seem like a lifetime ago but Funke Akindele’s big break came on the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) sponsored behavioral change drama, I Need to Know. Akindele Bello, then an interesting unknown played the lead role of Bisi, a naïve but curious teenager. The show, set in the staff secondary school of the University of Lagos was a hit that ran for four years and Akindele became if not a household name, at least a familiar face. Leaving the comfort and safety net of the I Need to Know environment circa 2003 was a huge shock for Akindele. The lead roles she had envisioned would be easier to locate failed to materialize and no one really cared that she had been on television on a set that was far removed from the regular Nollywood hubris.
It was back to pounding the pavement until she was invited to join the Yoruba speaking arm of Nollywood that thrived on caucuses. Akindele joined the Odunfa caucus and began working as an actor again. She was able to produce her first film Ojoketela in 2004 and with that in the bag, started building her credentials as a producer.
A star is (re)born
Everything changed for Funke Akindele in 2009 when she made Jenifa, the commercially successful Yoruba film that became a mainstream hit and relaunched her as a proper entertainment force. For the tale of the now iconic Jenifa, which she also wrote herself, Akindele delved deep into character, adopting not only the lingo but also the mannerisms of an unrefined local champion longing to spring herself into the big leaves.
In some ways, Jenifa mirrored Akindele Bello’s career at that point. Jenifa just wanted so badly to make it as a big girl no matter what it takes. All of the antics, all of the foolishness, all of the bodies left in her wake were merely in service of this goal. in similar fashion, Akindele simply wanted to make a living from acting. She knew she had the skills, she had the experience, she had even given her parents the Law degree that they requested. Everything she attempted at that point was simply in service of this goal. displaying her talents for the world to see.
Jenifa was a milestone not just for Akindele but also for how Yoruba films could be mainstreamed into regular entertainment but it is what Akindele was able to do with that success that has been deeply impressive, leading to a power move such as the directing gig with Ebony Life Films.
Akindele had learnt her lessons from the drought period that followed I Need to Know and she was determined to avoid that trauma at all costs. She went about her post-Jenifa career with all the doggedness of a starlet still searching for her day in the sun. Now firmly in the mainstream, she worked on projects by other producers to keep her visibility, but she doubled down on her own Yoruba films, telling Y! magazine back in 2012, “Remember that the Yoruba films gave me a chance when there was none anywhere so I never forget that… So no matter how swamped I am with the English movies, I will always produce my Yoruba films.’’
2011’s sequel, The Return of Jenifa took Akindele’s career to the stratosphere and proved to her that there was no limits to the things she could do with the Jenifa character. Even with a dodgy story and several production inconsistencies- YNaija’s film critic observed, ‘’It plays like a collection of comic skits, fragmented, disjointed at times but always hilarious.’’- The Return of Jenifa was a huge hit, both on the big screen and on the DVD format when it eventually rolled out. The hunger for more Jenifa was real and Funke Akindele knew just how to satisfy that hunger.
The house that Jenifa built
At the 2019 BET awards while accepting his Ultimate Icon award, Hollywood mogul Tyler Perry spoke of staying away from the crowd quietly building his own table while everyone else was fighting for a seat at Hollywood’s. ‘’Own your stuff, own your business, own your way.” Perry charged his highly appreciative audience. The eventual result of this long-term table building was the 2019 commissioning of a landmark studio complex in a space larger than Paramount, Warner Bros. and Walt Disney’s Burbank studios combined.
For Perry, all of this was possible because of his low budget, quick turnover yet immensely successful movies- think Nollywood but with bigger production budgets- most, headlined by his beloved cross-dressing character Madea.
Consciously or not, Funke Akindele-Bello has followed this ‘’own your business’’ to rewarding results even if not quite on the scale of Mr Perry. Discouraged by the activities of pirates who had taken over the DVD market, Akindele-Bello withdrew from regular production and turned her attention to television. She took Jenifa to the small screen with the spinoff sitcom Jenifa’s Diary and its success was a surprise to no one anywhere. Jenifa’s Diary travelled places that the films were not necessarily able to, with help of pay tv and the internet and Akindele-Bello’s popularity soared even as she wasn’t making regular appearances on the big screen.
Which is not to say that she withdrew entirely. She turned in a change of pace performance in Tunde Kelani’s 2011 drama, Maami, joined forces with AY for the creatively inert, yet commercially successful A Trip to Jamaica, took a back seat to Dakore Akande in Jade Osiberu’s Isoken and helped guide the Omoni Oboli helmed comedy Moms at War to 65million Naira in box office receipts.
Building her own table meant putting her energies into Jenifa’s Diary which has delivered multiple successful seasons now and continues to power through criticisms of redundancy and inertia. Akindele- Bello’s shtick is much like Tyler Perry’s. Keep costs to the barest minimum- Akindele-Bello limits her productions to her AMEN estate, Lekki home- double down on familiar material, repeat the strands that work, ditch those that do not, provide avenues for up and coming acts to shine and make room for the established ones. Akindele-Bello continuously cites her struggles as an up and comer as her motivation for providing platforms for young performers.
All of this seems fair and noble but she has been constantly dogged by accusations of low balling talent, paying little to nothing in terms of wages, promising exposure as rewards instead and having up and coming talent run domestic errands. Juliana Olayode who played the role of Toyo baby on Jenifa’s Diary in 2017 detailed how she used to act as unofficial personal assistant, bookkeeper, caterer on the set in addition to her onscreen responsibilities. The two eventually had a falling out and Olayode’s character was written off the show.
Funke Akindele-Bello continues to keep her eyes on the ball.
She co-runs the content production company, Scene One with her husband, Abdul Resheed Bello, better known as the rapper/producer JJC. Scene One has quietly morphed into the online platforms- www.sceneone.tv, an on-demand video service for television and film produced exclusively by the parent company, complete with a mobile app. Subsequently Akindele-Bello has launched two new series, Industreet, which takes an inside look at how the music industry runs, and Aiyetoro Town, yet another Jenifa spin off which recently wrapped its 18-episode first season run. Industreet, which plays like it was created from someone enamored by the Fox drama, Empire, has also been a welcoming lab for new and aspiring talents, especially those from her Scene One performing school.
All of this is of course separate from her work with Africa Magic where she produces and stars in the family sitcom My Siblings and I. She’s also launched her Youtube channel where she uploads content that promotes her creative endeavors, spiced with some semblance of personal reveals. She knows the game and she understands how it is played. Give the people enough to impress some semblance of intimacy, but never so much that the mystery is completely taken off.
When it comes to provide full-scale mass market entertainment, there is no one working quite at the scale of Funke Akindele-Bello. She may be preoccupied with her business ends but she manages to keep her comic skills and timing sharp. There is a certain expectation that comes with a Funke Akindele project and she has consistently found a way to meet up with these modest expectations, keeping her fans happy while drawing in new ones with every project.
Your Excellency is sure to present another unique opportunity to uncover a different side to Funke Akindele-Bello’s talents. The prospect is certainly tantalizing. A union of two powerful forces to replace the now defunct (according to industry rumors) ELFIKE collective that delivered magic with the first The Wedding Party film. Akindele Bello’s madcap energy- and multitude of fans- meeting Mo Abudu’s unrivalled PR machinery- and multitude of fans- during the holiday period that has been known to deliver record breaking box office. Who else can see the money minting?
While promoting the film, Akindele-Bello has claimed that Your Excellency “is a great script” but no one is coming to see the film on account of that. Only audiences who are new to Nollywood will be expecting greatness from either Akindele-Bello or Abudu. Every other person knows to expect familiarity, aspirational glamour and loads of comedy- both high and low brow. Funke Akindele-Bello has her audience and she’s got their back, the same way they’ve got hers. The same can be said for Mo Abudu.
Should be interesting watching this creative and business union play out.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.