[The Film Blog] How Africa Magic gave Nollywood a bad image

Africa Magic, Ramsey Nouah

Long before streaming became such a huge part of our culture, access to Nollywood films mostly ran on an efficient system of home video rentals. It was a subscriber community immersed in the zeitgeist, propelling an ecosystem of filmmakers, Nollywood-minded businesses, and movie lovers. Films came in black, chunky VHS cassettes: the 1992 Chris Obi-Rapu-directed film Living in Bondage, though an epic blockbuster, is a fascinating thesis on money rituals and occultism. In a pop culture sense, Living in Bondage still stands as the best archetype. And many low-budget, technically-bankrupt films like it only sought to disrupt the monopoly of Chinese and Indian flicks flourishing in the average home.

Then came Africa Magic, the movie channel that changed the economics of the TV and film landscape. Launched in 2003, the M-Net-owned brand infused Nollywood films into its DNA and branded itself as a paragon of African cinema. Its existence on pay television wasn’t a hindrance to the channel’s ubiquity and patronage. There were no competitors, and as the video rental system dwindled into oblivion, Africa Magic became the conveyor belt of entertainment services. But the channel, before diversifying into Yoruba and Igbo content, had inherited tropes of witchcraft from old-fashioned Nollywood and twisted African religious practices into something macabre and diabolical.

Africa Magic has gained a notoriety for this, a brand statement steeped in entertainment currency. Last weekend at the barber’s, I caught a Chiwetalu Agu film on Africa Magic, dressed in native doctor garb and reciting incantations in order to help a male client become wealthy. But at a heavy price that will involve the sacrifice of his mother. As they say, the rest is history. Though Africa Magic has invested in original programming, movies involving ritual killings and sacrifices still float on its viewing menu. An argument can be made that the depictions of these stereotypes isn’t exactly Africa Magic’s fault; they only broadcast from Nollywood’s available stock.

In an eye-opening 2017 article for The Ringer, Kate Knibbs headlined her piece with a question: Why Are Streaming Services Profiting Off 9/11 Conspiracy Theories? She argued on the discovery of documentaries on 9/11 and Illuminati conspiracies on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, and the endorsements of these damaging, misleading content on these platforms. “What is particularly galling is that streaming services do not seem to care,” Knibbs writes, “An Amazon spokesperson informed me that the company did not have any information to share, Netflix did not respond to my questions, and a Hulu spokesperson told me “not sure if there’s a much of a story for us.”

Comparatively, Africa Magic is in chief control of what it decides to broadcast, and, put bluntly, it is partly responsible for perpetuating the stereotypes that come to taint for Nollywood’s image. The streaming era hasn’t forced the movie channel into obsolescence. Dubbed the “Hulu of Africa,” the Africa Magic Go app fought for a place in the streaming market. And the annual Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards, postponed for later this year because of crammed TV programming, is ostensibly a positive contribution to Nollywood. But Africa Magic will go down as a promoter of the unpalatable stereotypes that have been forged with the brand, no matter how it tries to stay relevant at this time.

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