‘Aníkúlápó’ is Not Enough. Nollywood Needs More Historical Epics
What do Gladiator (2000), Braveheart (1995), and Titanic (1997) have in common?
They are movies whose breadth, size and spectacle have not only blessed cinema with some of its grandest tales but have stood the test of time. They achieved this –aided by a capable cast and crew– by belonging to a class of movies unlike any other: Historical epics.
Epics are works of art that depict historical events, often with a twist and other fictitious recreations. They have been the cornerstone of cinema since its infancy and for good reason. Film epics, when done well, may provide vastness and dreamy emotions unavailable elsewhere. It is no coincidence that some of the finest and most respected films in cinematic history are epics. Including the three highlighted in the first paragraph, movies like The Ten Commandments (1923), Gone with the Wind (1939) –which happens to be the highest-grossing movie of all time when adjusted for inflation– and recently, All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) feature some of the most captivating narratives ever adapted for the big screen. They further bolster my earlier point on historical epics being mainstays in the industry.
How do all these concern Nollywood you ask?
Well, Nollywood is a Nigerian industry and therefore depicts Nigerian (and African) history, culture, and values. Or at least it should. Despite undergoing drastic changes and morphing into a more potent force, Nollywood has seen a notable exclusion of historical epics, bar Anikulapo (2022), and a few others. And after the success of Anikulapo, it is evident that Nigerians have been starved of a home-grown epic of that nature and scale. Considering that, for over a century, Africans have been told they have no history and that many people actually believe this –including Africans themselves– one begins to see why it does matter. This is further compounded when one understands the power of film –and by extension, the media– in pushing narratives and changing public perception.
A distinctive attribute of film is its ability to transport audiences centuries into the past by merely creating sets and donning costumes. Epics are the masters of this. Through them, we get a complete view into a different timeline. Westerners and, to some extent, South-East Asians, have long understood this, so they tend to emphasize historical epics.
Hollywood has taken great lengths to explore ancient Western civilizations (like the Greek, Roman, and Nordic) and medieval Europe through the production of movies like Game of Thrones (2011) and The King (2019). By their virtue, we can picture medieval knights in shining armor and grand castles of princes and dukes. We are also unconsciously drawn into Western literature and mythology with works like Harry Potter (1997), Hamlet (1996), and The Lord of the Rings (2001).
Occasionally, they delve into other cultural materials –most notably ancient Egypt– but while doing so, tend to whitewash and brand it to their own taste, often robbing the original culture of its recognition. The Ten Commandments –and nearly every movie on ancient Egypt– use of white actors to depict ancient Egyptians is a solid example. It is also why the little time ancient African cultures spend in Nollywood is, often, of a confused society, sitting in half-baked mud huts all day, waiting for the white man’s saving grace.
At this juncture, the point is clear: Westerners, through Hollywood, push false historical narratives at will. The same is possible for Nigerians, albeit without the false narrative part.
Through the power of Nollywood –it is not the second biggest entertainment industry in the world for show– Nigerians can showcase African history in a way never told before: in all its glory and splendor. Apart from being a source of entertainment for an already stressed-out populace, Nollywood historical epics can educate Nigerians about the significant accomplishments made by our predecessors that molded our culture. The doings of Queen Amina, King Jaja of Opobo, Herbert Macaulay, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, and so on need more exploring.
In a time when Pan-Africanism has had a rebirth, epics about important black figures can aid us as a people by recounting the histories of our ancestors that Hollywood won’t tell. It would especially be crucial for the younger generation, in the face of “Americanization,” to help them remember their roots. Additionally, with patriotism being one of the major themes of epics, well-done takes by Nollywood can help teach unity at a time when tribal and religious tensions seem not to wane. The feeling of togetherness and unity against exterior foes can only be well-preached by epics like The Woman King (2022). The brilliant Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen may have already understood this when he crafted movies like Invasion 1897 (2013) as did Kunle Afolayan with Anikulapo (2022).
In the quest to develop home-grown historical epics, some Nigerian writers and filmmakers have created the cultural epic genre. Movies in this genre have, as their setting, the “true”, pre-colonial past. The Battle of Musanga (1996), which conceptualizes Igbo history in the style of Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe, is credited with co-founding the genre.
All things considered, good epics are not easy to write. Neither are they cheap. This is because they require complex and expansive locations, on-location cinematography, a large cast, historically accurate clothing, in-depth research, and, notably, action on a grand scale, and large actor casts. All of these require funds running into millions of dollars, the kind of which Nollywood studios might find unsustainable if they don’t eventually reap profits. This is not to say they are impossible to make. Invasion 1897 (2014), Amina (2021), King of Thieves (2022), and Half of a Yellow Sun (2013) are examples of well-polished historical epics with reasonable production budgets.
Notwithstanding the debate on the viability of consistently well-done historical epics in Nollywood, one thing remains clear. Historical epics are great tools for unlocking the past and instilling national pride –one that Nigeria and Africa desperately needs. Shying away from making them is one reason why an eminent figure like Mansa Musa and a powerful civilization like Great Zimbabwe remain in the shadows.